Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. But when you fast put oil on your head and wash your face (Matthew 6:16-17).
Last Sunday I enjoyed a brief conversation about Ash Wednesday over lunch with another priest. This colleague of mine seemed uneasy about smearing ashes on people’s foreheads because of an apparent prohibition of such outward signs of repentance found in St Matthew’s gospel. Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.
Indeed, there are places in Scripture, particularly in the prophets, were any sort of external sign of repentance is looked upon with suspicion or may be interpreted as superfluous. However, as I tried to point out to my priest friend, we ought to put our ashes and the readings from Scripture in their proper contexts in order to discover their true meanings.
First, Sacred Scripture. Ancient Israel, much like the Church now, had specific days set aside for fasting and penitence. However, often single individuals or groups observed extra days of self-denial and fasting. Many of them paraded themselves in front of their communities as those standing on higher moral ground, because of their penitential efforts. Moreover, not all self-denial was genuine but just make-believe practices, as some individuals cosmetically heightened the appearance of their fasting when no real fasting, no real praying took place in their lives. These gluttons-for-punishment, as it were, were fraudulent in their religion, and hungry only of people’s praises.
Thus we see that when Jesus says that we should not imitate the hypocrites who disfigure their faces, He is not forbidding us to sprinkle or smear ashes upon our heads, rather He is urging us to make sure that our efforts are undertaken in the right spirit of contrition and penitence for our sins. Charity and charity alone – that is, love of God and neighbour – should draw us to do penance, to fast, to pray, and to give generously for the needs of others. Any other motive is futile.
Secondly, the imposition of Ashes. The ashes are a symbol, a sign. They are not a sacrament, and grace is not given to the individual through them. Instead, the ashes mark the starting point of something new; they represent the chance of a new beginning in our life with God and neighbour. Through their use in the Old Testament for penitence and expiation ashes speak to us of repentance. However, they also should remind us of something often found the wild. Once the bushfires have raged through the woods only ashes are left behind and it is from these ashes, from this “ground zero” as it were, that new life can begin. So it should be with us.
Receive these ashes as the symbol that God is putting away the fires of your anger, of your pride, and of your rebellion through the instruments of penance, fasting, and almsgiving. Receive these ashes as a symbol of a fresh start in life with God.
These ashes do not disfigure our faces; they do not set us apart from one another, giving to some a higher moral ground on which to stand. Quite the opposite, these ashes mark our faces with the beautiful symbol of our redemption and they make us all look the same, with the same confidence in the forgiveness, mercy, and loving-kindness of our God.