An excerpt from the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading (according to Matthew) states that, “whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting…put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.”
However, the public display of ashes seems contradictory to the sentiment of the Gospel Reading. By being marked with ashes, aren’t we proclaiming to the world that we are good, God-worshipping Catholics that went to Mass today? Don’t they also mark, by process of elimination, the “non-believers” or “bad Christians” who didn’t go to Mass of this holy day of obligation?
I love that at Notre Dame, I’m able to attend Mass late at night; I never have to worry about missing Mass with my busy schedule. However, on Ash Wednesday, I felt awkward seeing friends and colleagues who had already received their ashes, whereas I would not receive mine until 10PM, by which time no one would see my ashes. I couldn’t help but feel judged because I hadn’t visibly been to Mass. Would people think that I’m a bad Christian because I had no ashes on my forehead?
It can be easy to view the ashes as a status symbol, of sorts. It’s as if the priest took out a pen and checked off the foreheads of all the people who went to Mass on Ash Wednesday. Then throughout the day, we get to see everyone who went to Mass and who didn’t. Politicians, celebrities and famous entities are also seen with ashy foreheads in the media one special Wednesday per year, spreading the image of the ashy “stamps of approval” far and wide.
Ashes are indeed a status symbol, but they don’t indicate a praisable one. Ashes represent our sinfulness and the morbid reality that we will die and return to “ashes and dust”. They bring to mind God’s punishment for Adam and Eve after their first sin. To me, they also bring to mind their eldest son Cain, the very first murderer, who was marked by God so that all who saw him would know what he had done. Why is there any “pride” then, associated with wearing a symbol of, literally, everything wrong with humanity since original sin?
This symbol isn’t praisable, but it is positive. By recognizing that we are all sinners, we can let go of human pride and turn to Jesus during Lent and throughout the year. Remembering that everyone messes up can help us feel like a more unified community and support system because no one is perfect or better than anyone else. We all sin, but we can all help each other with our journeys in faithfulness and good works in Christ.
I think there is definitely a difference between receiving ashes and “sporting” ashes. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday was chosen; not only does it advise against public demonstration of Lenten practices and self-denial, but it also reminds to wear and receive ashes with true intention and full cognizance of what they signify. I am not trying to say that you shouldn’t take forehead pics and post them to social media sites on Ash Wednesday! Rather, it is good to remember what the ashes represent about ourselves and our faith.