Wisdom of Ashes | Ash Wednesday
Every year on Ash Wednesday we hear the same Gospel reading, when Jesus exhorts us to “take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them". As we scratch our heads in confusion, the priest will usually explain in his homily why our wearing of ashes is not what Jesus was talking about (not that it can't be, in some cases). Usually he will explain that the wearing of ashes is instead an acknowledgment of our mortality and sinfulness.
The practice of publicly expressing penance through the wearing of ashes (and sackcloth, which we don't do now) is rooted in Judaism (you can find mentions of this Esther 4:1-2, Job 42:6, Jeremiah 6:26, and other places in the Old Testament) and continued in the early Christian church. Christian penitents would approach the church community in sackcloth and bare feet to receive ashes and do public penance. As it became more common for Christians to acknowledge everyone's inherent sinfulness, the practice expanded and all congregants would receive ashes as a statement of grief and penance over their sinfulness.
Rubbing dirt on your head, rending your garments and gnashing your teeth (the true biblical way to do penance) is foolish. It's embarrassing, degrading and, frankly, dramatic. And that's exactly why it's wise. In 1 Corinthians 3:18, Paul says to us: "Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool so as to become wise."
In his 2014 message for Lent, Pope Francis asked us to use the season to focus on poverty. In Corinthians, Paul tells us that for our sake, Christ became poor. Christ, the second person of the Trinity, took on humble human flesh to be with us and break down those barriers that separate us from God. Pope Francis says he took on this humble form "to be among people who need forgiveness, among us sinners, and to take upon himself the burden of our sins. In this way he chose to comfort us, to save us, to free us from our misery. It is striking that the Apostle states that we were set free, not by Christ’s riches but by his poverty." We're called first and foremost as Christians to serve Jesus in the poor. Poverty should not be a theoretical concept that we talk about as Christians, but something that we experience closely through almsgiving and care of the poor. We're also called to spiritual poverty, and the Lenten practices of fasting and almsgiving aid in that.
Utmost poverty of spirit means foolishness, penitent self-degradation*, and utter (dramatic) grief over our continual sinfulness. Only at our most humble can we appreciate how much God truly loves us, and how undeserving we are of his gift of everlasting salvation. Sprinkling ashes on our heads once a year might be a simple, last vestige of the ancient practice of penance, but it still means something that year after year we all (in our varying degrees of observance) feel the pull to turn to God and acknowledge that we are simply dust in the grand scheme of things. Everything we have and are is a gift of God's mercy.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't listen carefully to Jesus' words in the Gospel today. We can tend to wear our ashes proudly as a sign of our membership in the Catholic clan. Instead, think of the black mark on your forehead as that sign of sin that only Jesus is able to wash off. No matter what discipline or good work we practice during Lent or throughout the year, ultimately only Jesus takes the burden of our sinfulness. Only when we are raised again with him will we be free of the need for reminders of sinfulness and mortality.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
*Those living with mental illnesses that manifest in self harm or eating disorders should rest in God's mercy and remember that they are not called to practice fasting or other disciplines if they feel like those practices could threaten their spiritual, physical or mental well-being. Rest in the knowledge that your suffering has already brought you close to Jesus, and turn those sufferings over to him.