As we enter Lent on Ash Wednesday, we are faced with that eternal question: keep it on or rub it off? I am, of course, referring to the ashes we receive on our forehead that “remind us of our insignificance, and command us to soften our hearts” according to Fr. Reginald Martin.
As we are sent into the world as Mass is over, many people rub of their ash cross. Some do it so as not to get strange looks, but others in order to heed the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:
“When you are fasting, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they go about looking unsightly to let people know they are fasting. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put scent on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.” (6:16-18)
A warning against outward display in place of true piety and honesty. Many consider this also to disagree with the practice of marking our foreheads with ashes to show that we are starting Lent. Ash Wednesday being a day of fasting (nowadays the only obligatory one, together with Good Friday, during Lent) means that connecting ashes to fasting is a logical step. But is it?
As mentioned above, the ashes have a very specific role. They are sacramentals which aim to ground ourselves in our mortality and so encourage us to enter ever deeply into relations with other people and with God. Fasting serves a similar purpose, as do the other two pillars of Lent; almsgiving and prayer. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his general audience today:
This spiritual journey is traditionally marked by the practice of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. The Fathers of the Church teach that these three pious exercises are closely related: indeed, Saint Augustine calls fasting and almsgiving the “wings of prayer”, since they prepare our hearts to take flight and seek the things of heaven, where Christ has prepared a place for us.
Ashes are therefore not an outward sign of our fasting. They are both means to an end: preparation for our journey to Easter, and an ever deeper bond with the risen Lord.
Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton in the UK, lastly, gives another good reason not to rub off the ashes:
“Please try not to rub off your ashes as soon as you leave church, but take the sign of the cross to all those that you meet – in your school, office, factory, wherever you may be. This might just make people curious and wonder why you would do this. If you explain about Lent and Easter it might just make them think and may even awaken in them the questions that might lead to faith. Many people have a dim awareness of Lent and even ashes. It would be good to make this clear rather than dim.
“Don’t underestimate the power of this simple action and wear your ashes as not only a sign of the beginning of your Lenten journey, but also to witness to your greatest treasure in life. This small step could awaken faith in the hearts of many that you meet in a way that words could never do.”