This is a reflection I did for an Ash Wednesday service in 2004. Recycling is good for the soul....
When I was in grade school, my Catholic classmates and I would joke that one could round up all the Catholics on Ash Wednesday due to the black spot on their foreheads. Over the years this mark on my brow has been mistaken for a bruise, a birthmark, and in a bow to the computer age, as residue from a toner cartridge from a laser printer. But it begs the question, is there a better way to identify a Christian?
This reminds me of a statement that was popular a few years ago: If it were illegal to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Today’s Gospel reading might suggest that there should NOT be any direct evidence! Rather, one should take great care in not drawing attention to oneself when practicing acts of piety. The lines "When you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing" and "When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting" are but two examples given by Christ which implore us not to draw attention to our acts of piety and thereby deflate their value. I like to call this attitude acting as a secret agent for God.
But does this type of behavior really go unnoticed? I would say "No" for two significant reasons. First, as the Gospel states, God sees all we do and "your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you." This might seem to be advocating an attitude of "buying God’s favor". I would suggest, as a contrasting point of view, that it is rather an act of faith in God’s Providence. For example, the Christian act is not the placing of ashes on one’s head, which we share with other cultures and religions, but when we remove those same ashes remembering God’s mercy as already being realized.
The second reason I do not believe our "hidden" acts go unnoticed is that all our actions ripple throughout Creation. This ripple effect is the basis of the popularity of the Practice Random Acts of Kindness bumper sticker a few years back. My maternal grandfather practiced his Catholicism diligently, but was more popular for his generosity with his time. He was the Pied Piper of his neighborhood, and was known to be attentive to the needs of those around him. But he never tooted his own horn. His clarinet, yes, but never his own horn. When it came time for him to meet his Maker, his funeral Mass was one of the best attended I have ever seen. There was not a seat to be had in the Church. And the effects of his life are still felt in the lives of his friends, children, grand-children and great grand-children to this day. This ripple effect was cited by the Early Church Father Tertullian as the reason for his conversion when he said "see how these Christians love one another".
Is this hidden life of the Christian at odds with the wearing of the ashes then? I will answer "no" for two reasons. First, we experience life through things we sense, especially through the senses of touch and sight. We need a tangible thing to mark the beginning of Lent, a season in which we are called and re-called to a fundamental actualization of what God has done for us in Christ. Second, it is a communal sharing of the realization of where we would be without Christ, and that we are not alone in this Lenten journey of ours. We must not see the ashes as an end in themselves or as a magic talisman. Rather we allow the entire practice of Lent shape us in the light of Easter.
Finally, let us not forget our brothers and sister this Lent. After all, St. Paul in the second reading calls us to be "ambassadors for Christ; it is as though God were appealing through us, and the appeal that we make in Christ's name is "be reconciled to God." The ashes remind us where we would be without Christ, and we should remember those who are without the hope Christ brings. Also, pray for those in the RCIA program as they prepare for their joining our Catholic family. Lent was originally celebrated for those converting to Christianity, and sometimes I think we forget the freshness brought into the Church by these newly reborn souls.
May God bless us in this Lent, and may we be together to celebrate a Joyous Easter!