Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the day most people are eager to not wash their face and instead bear on their forehead a black cross. At first glance this practice is directly contradictory to what we hear in the Gospel at Mass this very day. In the sixth chapter of Matthew Jesus tells his disciples: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father” (Matthew 6:1). Don’t give money to charity and then make a commercial saying you gave money to charity. Don’t stand out in front of everyone and pray loudly making a scene so people will think you are holy. And finally, don’t dress all drab and decide not to shower or brush your hair when you fast so everyone will see how much you are suffering. At first glance, this little cross seems like a very loud contradiction.
The truth is that there are not many things that will get us to change our minds, never mind our hearts. In fact I will come out and say that I don’t even understand my own heart a lot of the time and I suspect you don’t as well. So, boasting about my charity, bible thumping and dressing to reflect my mood are not going to make much of a difference when it comes to change. In fact, these actions just reinforce our same old thoughts and same old behaviors.
So, what can convince us to change? I think there are two things strong enough to do that and they are what these ashes represent. Death and Love. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Yes, we are mortal. Our technology is doing everything it can to hide and to change that fact, but we are bound to die. And even as I say this, I know how little impact it has on my own life and on yours. We have learnt really well to keep the secret. But anyone who has faced death and lived will testify to how convincing it can be to inspire change. So we wear ashes, with the hope that maybe having a black smug on our forehead might remind us when we look in the mirror that we are mortal.
The second powerful motivator is love. That is why we wear our ashes in the shape of a cross. That cross reminds us that even Jesus died. Jesus, our God, suffered death on a cross, specifically to say to us that he has been there. And Jesus faced death and didn’t have anything about him to change, so he changed death. He rose from death at the resurrection and he gives that gift to us.
Our Church loves sacraments because they bring the grace of God in a real and physical way into our presence. This imposition of ashes follows the same formula. It is a physical reminder that death is real and that death is transformed and for both reasons we should be transformed. Our hearts and our minds want this change. Our hearts and our minds want a home that gives rest. That is what God provides if we want to take time to be still and know who he is. Let’s take time this Ash Wednesday to reflect in a mirror on these ashes. And to remember that we are mortal and we are loved and that God embraced both of these things in Jesus. Blessed be God forever.