I love Ash Wednesday, and I love the Holy Season of Lent. It has always been such a meaningful time for me, since I was a child. It was the time of year when everything that our Christian Faith was all about became, somehow, more real, more tangible. And the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of the Faithful at the beginning of Lent just seems like such a meaningful way to begin this powerful liturgical season.
So naturally, for Ash Wednesday I really wanted to say something profound, but the more I thought about it, the more private the whole thing started to seem to me, even though we do receive ashes on our foreheads, which is a very public symbol. And that, in itself seems to contradict what Jesus had to say about fasting:
“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.” Matthew 6:16-18
But these ashes are very different from the sackcloth and ashes that the Jews of Jesus’ time used to indication that they were fasting. These ashes, first of all, mark the beginning of a very holy season, Lent. When the priest imposes the ashes onto our foreheads, in the sign of a cross, he says “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” We are not wearing them for reward, but for reminder.
They represent our own mortality, and hopefully are an outward sign of inner penance and ultimately conversion. Our intention is not so that people will see how holy and righteous we are, which I think is really what Jesus was speaking against. And hopefully, as we go about our day, we will see ashes on others, and realize that we are not alone in this journey, that there are others, like us, who are striving to grow closer to God, and to become more devoted Christians. So, while my personal Lenten devotions and practices are, indeed, private, Ash Wednesday is a very public, communal event, that we can all draw strength from.