In today’s Gospel reading (Matt. 6:1-6, 16-18), Jesus says that we should not perform righteous deeds in order to be seen and then follows up on that with three examples to clarify what he means. At one point, he specifically says “anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting.” Shortly after hearing this Gospel passage, we have dark ashes rubbed on our forehead and wear them for the rest of the day for everyone to see. Why the contradiction?
There’s no contradiction involved. The Church chooses the readings for Ash Wednesday to remind us of all the things we should take into account, not just for this particular solemn occasion, but for the entire season of Lent.
There are two major themes today’s liturgy brings to our awareness. First, Ash Wednesday serves as a public call to repentance, for all sinners, not just Catholics. The first reading today helps us to recognize that point. Second, we need to be very clear about what we are repenting from and why. Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel draws our attention to that.
The Prophet Joel spells out the reason why we gather as an assembly before God on this day – and it’s not for the ashes. The Book of Joel is a reflection on Israel’s past, present, and future. Joel looks back as far as Israel’s bondage in Egypt (which always represents attachment to sin). God sent 10 plagues upon Egypt as judgment and punishment for Pharaoh’s evil ways. After each plague, Egypt had the opportunity to repent, but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. Twice in the Book of Joel, the Prophet alludes to the plague of Locusts, except in his oracle that plague is directed not at Egypt, but at Israel. Now Israel is being judged and punished for their hardened hearts. But there’s hope.
Just as Egypt had the chance to repent, so does Israel. Thus today’s reading begins with Joel’s call to repentance: “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2:12). This pronouncement hearkens back to Moses’ exhortation just before he died. It was his last plea to Israel:
“When you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” (Deuteronomy 30:2-3)
Moses goes on to say:
“The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6)
In other words, Moses knew that his people would turn away from the Lord, but also that God would call them back again and bless them, if they would repent. Today, the reading from Joel makes the solemn pronouncement that today is the day to turn back to the Lord.
The big takeaway from Moses’ discourse has to do with who is doing all the work and to whom. The people of Israel are already redeemed by God, for their bondage in Egypt is behind them at this point. Now it’s their job to turn to God. Then and only then does God do the work of renewal in them, signified in Moses’ words “God will circumcise your hearts” – not an outward sign like physical circumcision, but an inward grace of truly belonging to God. So we see that God does the work; the people must participate.
Liturgy is just that: the work of God in which the people participate. The Church, our Mother, who knows we are all sinners, calls us all to gather in public and do exactly what the Prophet Joel exhorts us to do, on this day:
Proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep,
And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people!” (Joel 12:16-17)
No one is exempt, we are all equal before the Lord, sinners in need of salvation. So on Ash Wednesday we celebrate our need for God as a public matter, recognizing with and before all that we have sinned. Our public act of worship, by its very nature, also emphasizes that the universal call to repentance requires that we forgive and intercede for one another, and for our nation.
Therefore, through the official, public, communal, prayer of the Church on Ash Wednesday, the people of God now become a sign to others that we recognize our own faults, ask for forgiveness, seek reconciliation, and humbly ask everyone else to do the same.
Hence the ashes. An outward sign of our call to conversion.
If you are still wondering what ashes have to do, per se, with repentance, it’s a rather short answer (followed by a list of Bible verses to back that up). In the Old Testament, ashes are a sign of mortality, repentance, fasting, supplication, and intercession. For further study on the matter, you can refer to these Bible passages:
The question we still have to answer has to do with why Jesus stresses that we should not make an outward displays of piety and penance in today’s Gospel reading. Here we need to pay attention to two things (not just one).
The first thing is what Jesus is actually calling us to do (not what he is warning us to avoid), and that is prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – three ways we turn to God during Lent. Jesus specifically says that we should do these things (not avoid them).
The second thing is what Jesus is warning us to avoid when we do these things during Lent. It has to do with our intentions, in other words, what we are doing it for. Is it for ourselves or is it for others and God? To be sure that it is not just for ourselves – that we are seen – Jesus advises us not to make a show of it. He warns us to be on guard, because he knows us very well. He understands how easily it is for humans to be tempted and fall into the snares of vanity, pride, greed, and all sorts of pleasure seeking, while giving the outward appearance of being holy. In a word, hypocrisy.
How well does Jesus really know the trials we have to endure? He endured it all himself, including temptation. We will follow up on this theme of Jesus’ temptation in our reflection on next Sunday’s readings and how they tie in to the themes we touched on today. See you then!