Have you ever felt awkward listening to the Gospel reading during Ash Wednesday services? It sounds as if Jesus is telling us not to put ashes on our foreheads during a day devoted to fasting.
In one part of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,
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 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 this mean we should wash our faces of ashes or anything else that would show people we’re fasting?
When you come across a passage in scripture that seems to teach that a Catholic doctrine is unbiblical, slow down and try to find as much context as possible behind the passage. In reading a passage slowly, we can also ask questions and notice details that change how we understand the text.
All right, let’s give it a try. Jesus says, “And when you fast . . . ”
Notice that Jesus does not say “if you fast.” Jesus expects his disciples to fast, and it would be a hasty assumption to think Jesus’ disciples engaged only in secretive, personal fasts that no one else knew about.
In fact, some critical scholars doubt that Jesus’ statement “and when you fast” actually comes from Jesus. They say this statement contradicts the criticism that Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast like the Pharisees or John the Baptist’s disciples (Mark 2:18). However, as the Protestant scholar Craig Keener notes, “Mark cannot mean that they never fasted,” because “omission of the biblical fast, Yom Kippur, would have yielded serious charges of which the Gospels provide no hint” (The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 226).
The criticism about Jesus’ disciples may have been related to the fact that they did not keep certain optional fasts that were popular among groups like the Pharisees (who may have fasted twice a week, as Luke 18:12 suggests). Jesus’ explanation is that just as one cannot mourn while the bridegroom is present, Jesus’ disciples do not fast while he is still with them—but this will change after “the bridegroom is taken away from them.” Indeed, Acts 13:2 says the Holy Spirit spoke to a group of Christians in Antioch who “were worshiping the Lord and fasting.” A first-century Catechism called the Didache says that Christians fasted on Wednesday and Friday (8:1).
Not only did Jesus expect his disciples to fast, but they fasted during periods when everyone knew they would be fasting, such as the annual day of atonement, Yom Kippur. (Luke probably mentions this when he refers to “the fast” in Acts 27:9.)
Jesus’ warning, therefore, is not about doing something that would reveal you’re fasting. If it was Yom Kippur (or a similar holy day), everyone would expect a faithful Jew to fast. The warning is about doing something to draw attention to your fasting and the toll it takes on your body. That’s why Jesus gives the following command: “Do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces.”
How would someone look “dismal” by disfiguring his face? What makes him a hypocrite?
The word hypocrite refers, in part, to the masks that an actor in a Greek play would wear on stage. A hypocrite only plays a part, so a religious hypocrite is someone who appears pious but actually isn’t (one of Jesus’ stock complaints about the Pharisees). But, in general, Catholics don’t wear ashes in order merely to appear to be pious. Ashes are instead a genuine sign of internal repentance and recognition that the wearer of the ashes comes from dust, and to dust he shall return (Gen. 3:19).
Jesus even speaks in a positive way of wearing ashes as a sign of repentance. Matthew says Jesus “began to upbraid the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent.” Jesus then thunders at them, “Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matt. 11:20-21).
Jesus’ criticism is not of people who engage in religious activities that outwardly manifest genuine repentance or spiritual sacrifice. Instead, Jesus criticizes people who engage in exaggerated behaviors, who “disfigure” themselves, in order to draw attention to their fasting, or even to fabricate it. That’s why St. John Chrysostom said, “I know many, not merely fasting and making a display of it, but neglecting to fast, and yet wearing the masks of them that fast, and cloaking themselves with an excuse worse than their sin” (Homily 20 on Matthew).
In other cases, the person may be sorrowful, but he is also vainly seeking some measure of glory through his fasting. For example, rabbinic literature like the Talmud criticized the nikpi Pharisee who “knocks his feet together” out of exaggerated humility or the kizai (or “black and blue”) Pharisee who walked into walls because he kept his eyes closed out of a desire to avoid temptation. Another kind of Pharisee were those who “rub” or “strike” themselves against walls in order to show how weak they had become from fasting. Protestant scholar Craig Evans connects this kind of Pharisee to Jesus’ warning about those who “disfigure” themselves to show they are fasting (Matthew, 139).
Jesus then says of the hypocrites, “They have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.”
Notice that the goal here isn’t to hide the fact that you are fasting. After all, friends and family would have noticed during mealtimes that a disciple of Jesus wasn’t eating. Jesus must have told someone about his forty-day fast in the desert so that it would be recorded in Scripture (Matt. 4:2). Instead, the goal is not to draw unnecessary attention to your fasting by making it look as if the lack of food has caused you to become gaunt or sickly.
We also have to remember, as my colleague Tim Staples notes, that Jesus often uses hyperbole in his teachings. Jesus commands that we pray in secret, but he prayed in the sight of others (Mark 14:32-35, John 11:41). Jesus says not to make any oaths to God (Matt. 5:34), but St. Paul made oaths calling on God as a witness to his truthfulness (2 Cor. 1:23). Likewise, Jesus says we should fast in secret to emphasize that we should not fast in order to receive praise from other people, not that our fasting should be done only in secret.
In closing, Matthew 6:16 does not condemn wearing ashes for the purpose of entering into a spirit of repentance for observing Lent. But that doesn’t mean Jesus’ warning is irrelevant to us today. If we treat ashes as a hip way to stand out from the crowd and announce to others that we’re Catholic, then Jesus will tell us that we “already have our reward.” This also applies to people who might not “disfigure their faces” but enjoy complaining about how difficult it is to fast or give up something during Lent in order to get sympathy from other people.
But if we maintain a holy disposition while wearing ashes or fasting, then we will carry out Jesus’ command to “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).