Fourteenth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Readings: Joel 2:12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
I read a commentary on Twitter at the end of last week that said if Ash Wednesday were a holyday of obligation, no one would go to church. Perhaps a strange thing to say about what is probably the most well-attended church day of the year. Every year, it seems, there is a rush to “get your ashes,” to be smeared with this ever-obvious sign of Christian identity that makes the rest of the world gawk with quaint curiosity. There’s even a hashtag on social media now – #ashtag – which people can use to get all the selfies of their dirty foreheads trending (which I’ll engage in myself as a gentle reminder to all I love that yes, it’s that time again!). For one day a year, at least, it would seem that it’s cool and hip and en vogue to be a Christian.
And then there is the message of the readings at the Mass that most people will be running in and out of today. Which is, put simply: knock it off.
Seriously. Knock. It. Off.
The message of the post-exilic prophet Joel comes to our ears first, proclaiming a time of fasting and repentance ordained by God during a time of hunger and thirst. “Rend your hearts, not your garments,” the prophet says, “and return to the LORD your God.” It is a sentiment that has been heard before in Judah’s history, going back to even before King David: that God prefers obedience to sacrifice, personal contrition to public offerings. It’s a sentiment that is present in the Gospel reading also, where 450 years after the time of Joel Jesus condemns the practices of the “hypocrites” for their grand gestures and showy activities, and encourages His disciples to practice their faith as privately and personally as possible in order to avoid their example – even going so far as to say, “[A]noint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father.”
So, then, what is the deal with annually receiving a smudge of ash on our foreheads? How do these messages from the prophets and the Savior co-exist with the reception of a very public showing of faith and identity? Is this not also hypocritical?
Let’s think about what a hypocrite is, from Jesus’ perspective if not our own. A hypocrite is not simply someone who says one thing and does another; that’s just a liar, and for all their many faults we’d be hard pressed to call the Pharisees and priests “liars” when it came to observing the Law. A hypocrite is something more subtle, sometimes so subtle the hypocrite isn’t always aware of being one. A hypocrite is one who operates as if there are two sets of rules for proper behavior: one for themselves, and one for everyone who is not themselves. Understanding this internal dichotomy is key for understanding Jesus’ castigation of the hypocrites, to say nothing of the true nature of repentance. Jesus did not mean to call out those who pray in public; He Himself engaged in public prayer, as did His disciples. Jesus meant to call out those who pray only in public, and those who do so to be noticed. Jesus did not mean to call out those who made public penances; He meant to call out those who made only public penances. When He says that the people who do such things “have received their reward,” He means that they, consciously or not, have prioritized their desire to be seen as pious over their desire to be actually pious (Latin pius, dutiful, having character). That is the example that we, who seek to follow God’s call to “even now…return to me with your whole heart,” cannot follow.
So why should Christians wear the ashes, then? Well, they are reminders of our mortality, of course. Our bodies will one day crumble and fall apart like the ashes that tumble down our faces on this day. But Saint Paul gives us another key that unlocks this particular door in his second letter to the Church at Corinth. Speaking of himself and of his fellow teachers and preachers of the Gospel, he writes:“[W]e are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God.” If I ever had to make a coat of arms, those words “Be reconciled to God” (Greek katallagete to Theo, Latin reconciliamini Deo) would be the motto. Just as the Israelites were meant to be a light to the nations that would attract the world towards the worship of God, so too the Church – Israel reconstituted as His Body – is meant to draw the all people to God through the spread of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. A Christianity lived authentically – lived in the light not as a show but as a sign – offers the choice of that life to all people. We are all meant to be ambassadors for Christ; as members of His Body, He appeals through us to us. As we begin the holy season of fast that is Lent, the ashes are our badge of ambassadorship. It gives notice to all, including ourselves: “This life will end, but our life will go on, so come with your whole heart to the One Who is Life. If you don’t know how, ask me. That’s why I’m here. And today, this badge is how you know me.”
Ours is still a God “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.” He continually acts through our neighbors and ourselves to bring as many people as possible into His merciful gaze. So if you’re getting the ashes just to get them, if they’re not causing you to stop and reflect on the flimsy crumbly wispiness of your and others’ earthly life, if the words “Remember, Man, that you are dust and unto dust you will return” don’t give you pause, if the words “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel” make your eyes glaze over as they go in one ear and out the other, if your stomach rumbles at the idea of walking around in public with a such a blatant mark of identity constantly cascading down your face and into your eyes all day as people come up to you and ask you what it means – if you don’t know or don’t care what the ashes are, then for mercy’s sake I ask you: don’t wear them, don’t #ashtag yourself, don’t even get receive the ashes at all. The reward you would receive for it would do nothing for anyone else.
“Behold, now is a very acceptable time. Behold, now is the day of salvation.” Let’s remember that, and let’s act like it.