Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dirty Foreheads

     Every Ash Wednesday, I am always led to contemplate just why Catholics (and Episcopalians as I found out) come crawling out of the woodwork, even and especially those who don't practice during the rest of the year, to attend a religious service during which we literally smear dirt over our foreheads.  What is the appeal?
     Why are we so enthralled and compelled to get dirty?  Is it because it's one of the days that you get to take something away from Church?  (Let's remember that the other day that the church-going population spawns, aside from Christmas and Easter, is Palm Sunday, the day when we get to take home a few palm fronds.  Give the people free things, and they will come to your service.)   Or is it to show that we belong to the cool religious club?  To brag silently that we are better than the heathen we pass during the day who don't share our ashen marking and smugly nod to those of our brothers who do?
     There was a meditation in the Lenten Magnificat on Ash Wednesday entitled "Actors."  It reads:
It takes someone who knows and loves art to know how sad it is to cheat oneself by only pretending to know and love art.  It is the same with God.  Jesus is not angry with the Pharisees for their practices of prayer, alms giving, and fasting.  He is angry and sad because they are content to take their practices as evidence that they have genuine knowledge of his Father.  They are actors who have forgotten that they are playing a part.
I think the point is that the outward symbol of a smudge of ash on our foreheads is not actually meant for outside observers.  That smudge of ash on my forehead is not for the other people I encounter in the day - it is for me, a symbol of my own mortality and weakness.  If we go into the Ash Wednesday services, and the Lenten season for that matter, with a spirit of showmanship, i.e. look at all the fasting I'm doing, look at how holy I am, we're going in for the wrong reasons.  This season is an intensely personal time to reflect on our own lives and how they might become better. 

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