Ash Wednesday is no longer a Holy Day of obligation. It remains, however, one of the most heavily attended Masses throughout the course of the year in Catholic Churches. Like Palm Sunday, the Church gives something in addition to the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday. Attendees process in the same fashion as Communion and receive ashes, made from the palm branches from last Palm Sunday, in the shape of a cross on their foreheads. While receiving this sign of faith, the minister of ashes says one of the following phrases:
"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."
"Repent and believe in the Gospel."
The readings taken from the Mass speak of returning to God with our whole hearts. They encourage us to rend our hearts and not our garments. We are to proclaim a fast and gather the assembly of people. Reconcile. Do not perform deeds so that others can see you. Give alms but don't blow your trumpet. Don't even let your right hand know what your left is doing. Go and pray by yourself. Fast in such a way that those around you would think you've had your fill. Wash your face and anoint your head.
And walk around all day with ashes on your forehead.
The message seems to be a bit mixed. Do all of these things in secret but write your commitment to Christ literally across your forehead. Don't let anyone know that you're fasting and doing penance but everyone that you see today will notice the smudge on your forehead.
Our faith is filled with contradictions, though. Be in the world but not of the world. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Be strong in your weaknesses. Die so that you may have life.
Perhaps the ashes on our foreheads help us to remember that our true focus should be on Jesus. Perhaps they are a way to humble us, knowing that maybe we'll give up chocolate to hopefully lose a few pounds or that we'll be nicer to people to gain potentially some sort of social advantage. These are noble reasons, but like the pharisees, we will gain earthly rewards if we have an earthly focus. Instead, our purpose in submitting ourselves to prayer, fasting and almsgiving should be to return to Jesus with our whole hearts, not just the part that has something else to gain.
Perhaps this Lent we will recognize the temporal nature of our bodies and the eternal heritage of our souls. Perhaps this Lent we will repent and believe in the Gospel.
Perhaps the ashes are a challenge for us to get outsiders to know that we are Christians not by the crosses on our foreheads but by the love in our hearts.
By our love, not ashes on our foreheads. By our love.