March 6, 2014 by Alex Johannigman
Every year when Ash Wednesday rolls around many of us find ourselves sitting in the pews wondering why we listen to a reading about fasting without letting anyone know about it, but then put ashes on our foreheads for all to see.
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. 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 others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18, ESV)
As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminded us towards the end of his papacy last Ash Wednesday, Jesus “denounces religious hypocrisy, behavior that wants to show off, attitudes that seek applause and approval. The true disciple does not serve himself or the ‘public,’ but his Lord, in simplicity and generosity.” On the surface level, it seems to completely antithetical to Jesus’ teaching to put ashes on our heads to remind everyone around us “Hey! I’m fasting today!” That’s why I think it is important for us to remember why we put ashes on our faces in the first place.
According to the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy:
125. In the Roman Rite, the beginning of the forty days of penance is marked with the austere symbol of ashes which are used in the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday.
The use of ashes is a survival from an ancient rite according to which converted sinners submitted themselves to canonical penance.
The act of putting on ashes symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God.
Far from being a merely external act, the Church has retained the use of ashes to symbolize that attitude of internal penance to which all the baptized are called during Lent.
The faithful who come to receive ashes should be assisted in perceiving the implicit internal significance of this act, which disposes them towards conversion and renewed Easter commitment.
The ashes are supposed to remind us of a few things that will help us grow in humility.
First, they are a reminder of our own mortality. One of the phrases that can be used when distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday is “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Our time here on earth is limited, so we must remember to use the time we have been given wisely.
Secondly, ashes remind us of our fallen, sinful nature and our need for repentance. In Biblical times, ashes were a sign of a person who was repenting for their sins (see Daniel 9:3-6). The other phrase that can be used when distributing ashes at mass is “Repent, and believe the Gospel.” Ashes are an outward sign of our need to begin again.
Finally, and most importantly, the ashes that we wear should be a sign of humility, rather than a sign of pride. They remind us that everything we have is from God, because we would be less than a pile of dust without him.
So as we begin this season of Lent, remember why we fast, pray, and give alms. If you walked around on Ash Wednesday pointing out your ashes to everyone you saw and telling them that you went to mass and that you’re fasting today, you did it wrong. It is not to make ourselves look like better, holier people. We celebrate Lent to grow in humility and to recognize that we are mortal, that we are sinful, and that we owe God everything we have. And as a way to give thanks to him, we want fast, pray, and give alms to give a little bit of our many blessings back to our Creator.