On Ash Wednesday, to kick off the penitential season of Lent in preparation for Easter, many of us go to Mass and receive ashes on our foreheads (or the crown of our heads) as a reminder of death and of the fleeting nature of worldly things. When we receive the ashes, we are told by the minister, “Remember, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”
But the ashes are more than a personal reminder; they are an outward sign as well. It’s not as if we can see our own foreheads, so is it meant to be a sign for others?
Hang on—didn’t Jesus tell us not to be ostentatious about our sacrifices and penances? In the Gospel of Matthew, we read, “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:16-18).
Doesn’t Ash Wednesday contradict this? By wearing ashes, and especially by sporting them and exhibiting them, aren’t we going against our Lord’s command?
Well, the main point we need to recognize here is that Jesus is talking about our intentions. In other words: don’t fast and make sacrifice in order to show off. Do we wear the ashes for God’s glory or for ours? Jesus is employing hyperbole here to help make his point. He exaggerates, seeming to say we should never fast in a way that others can see, but in reality, what he is doing is reacting to those who make a show of their penance.
As Tim Staples points out, Jesus uses hyperbole at least thirteen times during the Sermon on the Mount, where this passage is found. It is apparently a favorite tool in his rhetorical toolbox! Other examples include “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away” (5:29); “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (5:30); and “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (6:6).
The wearing of ashes is a common penitential practice throughout the Old Testament. One example is found in the writings of the prophet Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord . . . O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation; for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us” (6:22-26). Ashes and other penitential practices can do great good for our souls, helping us keep in mind death and the transience of the world.
The potential problem comes in our interior disposition with regard to the wearing of ashes. Is it a penitential sign, reminding us and others of death and of the fleeting nature of worldly things? Or do we treat it as a sign of our piety, a way to show others that we are so devout?
We must be frank and honest with ourselves. As we’ve seen, there is no guideline for the wearing of ashes, but we must be careful not to be “exhibitionist” about it, drawing attention to ourselves and our piety. On the other hand, we must not go looking for a convenient excuse not to wear our faith on our sleeve. In other words, if we want to wash off the ashes right away—or avoid getting them in the first place—why do we want to? Is it because we don’t want to seem ostentatious or exhibitionist? Or is it because we really don’t want people to know that we are Catholic, or to challenge our faith? Is it because we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves over Jesus, or is it because we don’t want to draw attention to the Catholic faith and the memento mori?
We’d do well to remember the most striking part of the old papal coronation ceremony, where a friar would present the pope (already arrayed in pontifical regalia and carried around on the sedia gestatoria) with a piece of burning flax. As the flax burned into ashes and smoke, the friar would loudly proclaim to the pope, “Pater Sancte, sic transit gloria mundi!” (Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world!) Tempus fugit, memento mori—time is fleeting, remember death! This could be the motto of Ash Wednesday.
All of these powerful reminders of death and of the fleeting nature of worldly things are front and center on Ash Wednesday, and our wearing of the ashes can be a reminder of this to those we encounter—particularly if it sparks a conversation.
And why is it that we keep death before our eyes like this? The other option for the minister when administering the ashes informs us on this: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” That is the point of these ashes. And if others see us wearing them, it can be a reminder to them as well.