Feeling a little tired and hungry, as you might expect on this Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season of prayer, fasting, and penance. For some reason it is always difficult for me to fast on this day, although I fast regularly. Maybe it has to do with being an obligatory fast. It is much easier to fast when no one requires it of you, or so I have found. That which is chosen freely is virtuous and done gracefully.
Difficult as the Ash Wednesday fast is, I have avoided letting the observance become a gloomy affair, as Jesus warned against. I have at least taken care not to look like I am fasting: so as not to neglect my appearance, I got a haircut this morning.
Our fraternity went to Mass at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Cypress Hills to celebrate Eucharist and receive the ashes blessed by the priest. For the first time, I found myself uncomfortable receiving ashes. It was not because I deny my sinfulness and mortality or refuse the call to conversion, as the earthy anointing reminds us. Rather, it was because I feared looking like the hypocrites Jesus deplored. I am surprised that the irony never occurred to me before this year. How many times have I heard Jesus tell us not to make a show of our almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, only to get a big black smear on my forehead moments later? One of the formators told me that the ashes are meant primarily to be a sign for the assembly: together we acknowledge our sin and our desire for conversion. Together we take up our cross daily. Together we lose our worldly life so we may gain eternal life. The ashes are not meant to show others how humble, how pious, how generous, or how hungry we are! The ashes are not meant for show, period. If they say anything, they say how utterly lacking in humility, piety, and charity we are, and how sorry we are of the fact.
Unfortunately, that is not the message people who are disinclined to give Christians of any denomination the benefit of the doubt will receive. If the "plain sense" of Scripture is the sense in which we should understand Jesus' teaching, we should not be surprised by this.
Less than an hour after I got home from church, I was doing my house chore, cleaning the bathrooms. While I was polishing a porcelain surface, I saw little black flecks float down from nowhere and pepper the area. For a moment I was dumbfounded, until I scratched my forehead. Ridiculous. I took a wet washcloth to my forehead and rubbed it clean.
Lord, cross my heart and not only my forehead with a sign of penance. Let my conversion be interior and not only exterior.