I've read that in New York City, Ash Wednesday is almost a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics, Jews, Christians of all denominations, and even the unchurched. I noticed that the attendance the Basilica of St Mary's 5:30 p.m. Mass, their third service of the day (I'm not certain how ecumenical it was), was pretty impressive.
And now I read from Clairity, who teaches at St Scholastica and is studying at San Diego State U this term that even in body-worshiping California, the crowds were large.
One Ash Wednesday, I was trying to find a convenient service and went to the San Diego State campus where I was attending graduate school. SDSU has a Newman's Center and a beautiful little chapel, but normally there are no large numbers in attendance. Instead of the chapel, though, an auditorium had been booked for the day. It was filled with penitents on folding chairs waiting to receive their ashes. In fact, it is not a holy day of obligation, and apparently the faithful and others are not in need of that extra push.
So much for the regulars who are mortified by a big black cross stamped on their foreheads. The others come in especially to get their mark. Something resonates about this ritual which reaches back into the Old Testament in many cases, especially in the story of Jonah and his repentant Ninevites with their king sitting in a pile of ashes. Clairity's Place