I am always somewhat surprised by the Gospel Reading for Ash Wednesday. Jesus is talking to his disciples, warning them not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them. He tells them to give alms secretly, to not even let the right hand know what the left is doing. He goes on to exhort them not to be like the hypocrites, standing and praying in the synagogues and on street corners, so that others will see them. He says we should pray in secret. And finally, if we are fasting, it should be our little secret. We should look nice and clean. (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
Then we all get in line and go up to receive ashes on our foreheads! At first glance, it seems like we are jumping up and heading straight into what Jesus said to avoid. At first glance. But upon closer examination, there is (or at least there should be) a big difference between the public acts of the hypocrites Jesus condemns in Matthew, and the distribution of ashes on the foreheads of the faithful.
The individuals Jesus was talking about were performing righteous deeds, giving alms, praying and fasting for effect. Everything they did was carefully calibrated to make people think they were holy. It was all a show, a smoke-and-mirrors event. Inside, deep in their hearts, they were far from holy. And I think they knew it, but as long as they could keep up the charade, they didn’t care. Until Jesus came along and saw them for who they really were, and called them on it. No wonder they wanted him dead!
But back to those ashes. The Old Testament is full of references to the use of sackcloth and ashes. Mordecai resorted to sackcloth and ashes when he heard that King Xerxes had decreed that all of the Jews in the Persian Empire were to be killed. (Esther 4:1) Job also used sackcloth and ashes to express his repentance. (Job 42:6). Daniel writes about turning to the Lord with prayer, fasting, sackcloth and ashes. (Daniel 9:3). And in the New Testament, in reference to towns who refused to repent, in spite of all the miracles they’d witnessed, Jesus said, “If the miracles worked in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have reformed in sackcloth and ashes long ago” (Matthew 11:21) You get the idea.
So ashes have been with us a long time. Receiving ashes on the first day of Lent is a practice that dates back to the fifth century. We have even earlier references to the use of ashes being used by the Early Church from the writings of Tertullian (c. 160-220) and Eusebius (c. 260-340).
But these are not the ashes of the hypocrites. These ashes are merely an outward sign of a commitment to an “interior pilgrimage towards him who is the fount of mercy” (Pope Benedict XVI). We no longer use sackcloth, and the ashes are merely symbolic, but the meaning is the same: we are sorry for the way we’ve acted and the things we’ve done, and we want to change. So, this is the first part of the journey toward Easter, toward our rebirth through repentance. How cool is that?