A few people I know have pointed out what seems like a contradiction related to Ash Wednesday.
In the Gospel for that day we’re told to avoid drawing attention to ourselves when we do good works: “[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people might see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 6:1).
But then immediately after that, the priest marks a cross on our foreheads with black ashes. Even though it often ends up looking more like a black smudge than a cross, it’s hard to disguise the fact that you’ve received ashes on Ash Wednesday.
If you go to Mass in the morning or during the day, you have a dilemma: Do you keep the ashes on your forehead and let everyone know you just went to church or do you wipe them off so as not to draw attention to yourself?
It all depends on your motivation, according to Father John Gallas, pastor of SS. Peter and Paul in Loretto, and Father John Paul Erickson, director of the Office of Worship in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“It would be a mistake to think that Jesus forbids or even discourages the outward and public show of religion,” according to Father Gallas. “In Matthew 6:1, he is not discouraging the outward show, but the interior pride that can undermine it.”
We can reveal our faith in different ways such as by wearing a crucifix or even by taking a stand on a moral or ethical issue, he said. This fulfills another thing Jesus says in the Gospel: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Receiving ashes isn’t a good work but a visible sign of sorrow for our sins, Father Erickson said. In the Old Testament, penitents wore sackcloth and ashes to publically atone for sin, he said. The king of Nineveh ordered all residents to wear them after the prophet Jonah foretold mass destruction, and King David wore sackcloth and ashes after committing serious sin, he added.
According to Father Gallas, we wear ashes as a sign of the need for repentance. “The ashes help us accomplish our duty of giving public witness as Catholics, they remind us that people see us as Catholics, and that in our baptism we were marked for Christ.”
Europeans Catholics may avoid the question of whether or not to wear ashes because the tradition there is to sprinkle them on the head rather than mark a cross on the forehead. That’s how Pope Benedict has received them.
Receiving ashes on the forehead is one way we enter into the penitential nature of Ash Wednesday together. Prudence should dictate whether we keep them on or wipe them off after Mass. Ashes aren’t anything to hide but they’re nothing to boast about either.