Every year toward the start of Lent, questions about the Catholic observance of Lent arise. “How long is Lent?” “Can I have what I gave up for Lent on Sunday?” “Am I allowed to eat bacon bits on my salad during Lent?” One of the most common questions I’ve come across is “But how can we wear ashes on Ash Wednesday when Jesus condemned it?”
Actually, what Jesus said on the matter, which is included in the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, is this:
When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you (Matt. 6:16-18).
How does this square with putting ashes on our foreheads for Ash Wednesday?
First of all, Jesus’ primary concern is hypocrisy. What he is condemning are acts undertaken to show off one’s personal piety. If the intention in doing an otherwise good act of mortification is to draw public attention to oneself, then, Jesus says, the attention received from the public is the only reward that person will receive, rather than the heavenly reward for which we are searching.
It is also noteworthy that Jesus says these hypocrites are “neglect[ing] their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting.” Perhaps those Jesus was condemning were not actually fasting but creating a surface impression so as to win the praise of others for their presumed piety. God, who sees the heart, knows whether or not they were really fasting. Hypocrisy, after all, is creating an appearance that is at odds with reality.
For Catholics, though, Ash Wednesday is not about creating a show of one’s piety or drawing attention to one’s fasting. The wearing of ashes is a penance that Catholics around the world are invited to enter into as part of a community. In the United States, the custom is to mark foreheads with an ashen cross. In many places around the world, though, Catholics have ashes sprinkled over the crown of the head, which is more hidden from public view and has biblical precedent (1 Macc. 3:47).
Of course, there can be a danger of hypocrisy when the ashes are sought for their outward value alone and do not act as a sign of a repentant heart. Although exceptions are made for the homebound, many parishes now limit distribution of blessed ashes to the Masses offered on Ash Wednesday so as to discourage those who want merely to wear the ashes but not otherwise participate in the holiness of the day. While participation in a Mass is not a requirement for receiving blessed ashes, it does make sense to ask those who want the ashes if they are prepared to do that which the ashes symbolize and amend their lives.
The other major penitential activity of Ash Wednesday is to fast. This is also intended as a means to join into the communal penance of Catholics around the world. Sometimes concerns are raised that the fasting required of Latin Catholics on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is too lenient. The age requirement is from 18 to 59. It’s not a complete fast from food and drink but a reduced intake to one full meal and two small meals. The abstinence from meat is not absolute, but allows for exceptions, such as soups that contain bits of meat.
There is certainly room for Latin Catholics to wish that the disciplines in this area were stricter, as they are for Catholics in the Eastern churches. But that leniency does not restrict anyone capable to holding himself to a stricter fasting and abstinence standard from doing so, and it allows those who need the leniency (e.g., those with medical conditions, those who live in areas with limited dietary choices) to participate in the communal penance of the day. The Church legislates for Catholics around the world and in doing so seeks to create disciplines that allow for penance but do not create an undue burden on members of the faithful in difficult circumstances.
This communal aspect to the Church’s days of penance is, I think, best captured by the prophet Joel, in the Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday:
Blow the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly, gather the people, notify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast. . . . Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep, and say, “Spare, O Lord, your people, and make not your heritage a reproach” (Joel 2:15–17).
This penance on Ash Wednesday, and throughout Lent, is meant to prepare us for Easter. It is intended to remind us that our destiny is to die and rise again in Christ. In one of his homilies for Ash Wednesday, St. John Paul II said:
Why does the Church place ashes on our foreheads today? Why does she remind us of death? Death which is the effect of sin! Why? To prepare us for Christ's Passover. For the paschal mystery of the Redeemer of the world. Today we need to hear the “you are dust and to dust you will return” of Ash Wednesday, so that the definitive truth of the gospel, the truth about the Resurrection, will unfold before us: Believe in the gospel!