My New Testament students have asked me on a number of occasions over the years about the ashes placed upon the forehead on Ash Wednesday. They have not asked about the origin of the tradition or even its meaning as such; what they have asked about is quite interesting and perfectly relevant for the readings of Ash Wednesday: do the ashes on the forehead, smudged for all to see, run counter to Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount about the proper way to fast and to pray? The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18, comprises this section of the Sermon on the Mount and is as follows:
"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. "So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you… "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
What my students have fastened on is a seeming disparity between Jesus’ teachings on private acts of piety and the public manner in which the ashes are displayed on Wednesday, which is not unusual for teenagers or young adults, who have radar for detecting hypocrisy. But is there hypocrisy on display on our foreheads?
Most relevant for Ash Wednesday are verses 16-18. Jesus says, “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” In all of these examples, almsgiving, prayer and fasting, Jesus is concerned with “pretending” or “acting.” This is the common meaning in Greek of hypokrinomai (to pretend, to play a part) or hypocrites (a pretender, an actor). In this sense, I do not think the issue is necessarily the public display of righteous behaviors; the issue for Jesus is the motivations that lie behind the public displays of righteousness: they are, he is saying, an ancient reality show. They are intended to gain human praise and honor, not indicate a deep attachment to God’s ways.
Now, Jesus does instruct his disciples to give alms secretly, to pray privately, and to fast unobtrusively, so that they are not tempted to win the applause of others, but instead the favor of God who sees all things. It remains, obviously, excellent advice. And yet, the true motivations of all people rest in the recesses of the human heart, where only God can see them. We do pray publicly in Church; we do help out the poor and people know of our good deeds, not because we are trumpeting it, but because we joined them at Feed My Starving Children or at Habitat for Humanity; and yes, we do wear ashes on our head for all to see on Ash Wednesday. But it is God, and God alone, who truly and always knows our motivation. If it is for public acclaim that we do these things, God knows; but if we have done these acts publicly not for acclaim and praise, God knows that too. It is our interior life, our motivations, that God alone knows. If our private acts of charity and prayer are done out of a sense of miserliness and duty, God knows that too.
So let the ashes that we have marked upon our foreheads be a sign of our willingness in Lent (and beyond) to serve God through prayer, acts of mercy and penance, not for others to see and praise, but as an inward turn to the righteousness of God. God knows when it's just a show and when it marks genuinely the path of repentance.
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