Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Joel 2:12-19 / Matthew 6:16-21
It is once again Ash Wednesday, and the Catholic faithful will again confront that perennial question: Do we wash the ashes from our face or leave them on for the day? In North America, where the custom prevails of applying the ashes to the forehead in a visible cross of lesser or greater magnitude, the question cannot be avoided. To wash, or not to wash.
Many of the faithful cannot avoid something of a twinge of guilt on hearing the words of the Word Incarnate in the Gospel today: But you, when you do fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father, who is in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. Could there by any command, any dictum of the Lord clearer than this? Those who disfigure their faces in order to appear to men as fasting are hypocrites who have received their reward, and the implication is that it is not a reward any would willingly seek. It sounds with the solid thunder of a syllogism, its logic as inescapable as any demonstrative proof. Those fasting ought not to appear to be so, the visible wearing of ashes does make one appear to be fasting, therefore those fasting ought not to be seen wearing ashes on their forehead. QED.
This would all be compelling if it were not for the overtly public character of repentance demanded by God through the prophet Joel: Blow the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather together the people, sanctify the Church, assemble the ancients, gather together the little ones and those who suck at the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth from his bed and the bride out of her chamber. Between the porch and the altar, the priests, the Lord's ministers, shall weep and shall say: Spare, O Lord, spare your people. This is no hidden fasting done in secret. This is no careful, private convocation, quickly erased by the judicious use of soap and towel, the discrete washing away of the signs of penitence as though nothing were different, everything just as normal. It is public, solemn, directed not only to the faithful within but to the whole world of unbelievers without: Why should they say among the nations: Where is their God?
There is of course a legitimate, indeed crucial, reason to worry about being too public in one's penitential disciplines. We engage the obsevances of Lent so that we might be converted, to restore ourselves to God, who has restored us to himself in Christ. To be concerned that others know of one's own fasting is fatally to miss the point. It means punishing the body and chastening the soul to be conformed to the world, and this is a failure on two counts. It is a failure spiritually since it is to Christ, and not the the fallen world, that we seek to be conformed. Yet, it is also a failure in worldly ways, since the sons of this age do not take kindly to those who refuse to revel in earthly delights. The publicly notorious penitent is an alien to God and the world alike, and has gained nothing for his trouble. He has received his reward.
All the same, there is another sort of worry, that we should try too hard to appear healthy and whole, self-controlled and self-sufficient, in no need of assistance, human or divine. The same logic which would confuse bleaching one's teeth with having them cleaned by the dentist, sweeping dirt under a rug instead of sweeping out the house, glib and clever answers in place of admissions of ignorance and the hard work of research, public shows of goodwill and solidarity rather than the honest if slow, painful, and difficult work of reconciliation — all of these can be just as deadly to the soul as a gross, public display a penitential viruosity. We gain nothing, and the world learns nothing, if confuse a desire to avoid vain glory with a different and all to common motive, the desire that no one should know our weakness, that no one should think we were in need of healing and conversion, that no one should doubt our own sufficient goodness and grace.
Only in a Church which can bravely and humbly show to the world its need for conversion and repentance can the healing grace of God serve as a sign to the world of the power of the Cross. Only in a frank display of our poverty and emptiness will the world learn of the abundance which flows from the Spirit to those reborn in the waters of life. This is why we wear our ashes in the presence of our coworkers, on the bus, in the market. We do not want a congratulation or reward. We do not seek anything for ourselves. Rather, we await the coming of Christ to save his people, and the glorious abundance his risen life will bring.
Behold I will send you corn and wine and oil, and you shall be filled with them: and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations, says the Lord almighty.