The Art of Ash Wednesday, From the Neck Up

Mary Enright has worn her red hair in bangs as long as she’s had hair. Wednesday was no exception.

“Ash Wednesday is important to me because I’m an Irish Catholic,” Ms. Enright said as she walked down the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Her smudged cross peaked through her bangs, illuminated by the golden light of a New York City sunrise.

“It’s my religion and it ties me back to home when I’m far away,” said Ms. Enright, 48, who lives in Kips Bay and is a workshop supervisor for the jewelry maker Van Cleef & Arpels. “So anytime I feel like I need to ground myself, I come to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”

For many Christians, Ash Wednesday signals the beginning of Lent, a six-week period of repentance and self-denial meant to remind the faithful of Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert.Although Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, its Mass is a favorite of many Catholics, who show up for services early in the morning to have their foreheads daubed with ashes in the shape of a cross, an outward sign of their penitence.

But for such a simple symbol, there can be substantial variation in terms of the markings themselves. Heavy application, or light touch? Quick smear, or painstaking cross?

“My bangs have been in my life since I’ve had hair, so I wasn’t going to do anything different.” —Mary Enright
“I wanted to come to St. Patrick’s Cathedral because it’s so pretty, and I asked my boyfriend to join.” —Claudia Rodrigues

When Caitlin Hendricks was growing up and attending Catholic school, “I was always hoping for, like, the full cross but, like, not too dark,” she said. “Because obviously the darker it is, the better you could see it.”

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