Next Wednesday, March 1, begins the liturgical season of Lent. In the Christian world, Lent signals the time when the community prepares for the celebration of Easter with some 40 days of penance, sacrifice and good works. Ash Wednesday initiates the season, and this year that day falls on March 1. In this opening celebration, people are signed with ashes on their forehead to remind them of their human frailty and their need for repentance.
Oftentimes a Gospel from the Sermon on the Mount accompanies the celebration of this day:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them; . . .
“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
Unfailingly on this day, people find a disconnection between the Gospel reading and the marking of our foreheads with ashes. The Gospel tells us not to call attention to ourselves when we give alms, or when we pray, or when we fast. Yet, today as we begin our Lenten journey, we draw attention to ourselves and our need for repentance. It seems inconsistent, but the inconsistency only arises when we consider the question of intent which is the theme of this Gospel reading.
What do we intend when we mark ourselves with ashes? Is it to draw attention to ourselves or are we reminding ourselves in a concrete way of our need for repentance and change of life. Most of the time, we cannot see the ashes on our own forehead, but we can see how each other is marked, as well as the people whom we pass on the street. When we see how others are marked with the ashes, we are reminded of our need to take stock of our lives as well.
Next Wednesday, on our St. John’s University campuses, we will see the ashes frequently upon people’s foreheads. People understand and feel the power of the symbol, and so they seek to be marked. It is true for Christians of all denominations and also for those of other (and sometimes no) faith tradition. It is a very human sign as well as a religious one. Those of us who have ministered in hospitals or nursing homes or schools or Vincentian Universities have discovered how powerful this symbol is for a great variety of people.
And so, if you have the opportunity to be signed with the ashes next week, do so. It acts not only as a reminder to you but to all the rest of us of our need to repent and acknowledge our mortality. It offers an excellent spirit with which to begin the Season of Lent.