Blessing of Ashes-Mass Text
There may seem to be just a little bit of a paradox in the ceremonies of Ash Wednesday. In the blessing of ashes we are reminded of the Ninivites, to whom Jonas the Prophet preached (after getting out of the belly of the whale) who dressed in sackcloth and ashes and entered into a deep fast to placate God whom they had offended, and they were forgiven.
We see something of the same in the verses which come from the Prophet Joel. But even in Joel we are given to understand that our contrition for sin must be interior, much more than exterior. Through Joel, God tells us that we must be converted to Him with our hearts—we are, indeed, to “rend our hearts and not our garments.” Yet, there is an element of external penance as well, when Joel directs the priests of the Temple to “lie in sackcloth” much like the Ninivites.
The externals seem to be necessary for us human beings. We are very much helped by our manner of dress and other external behaviors to form an appropriate internal attitude. That is one of the reasons why the Church expects us to dress appropriately when we come for holy Mass—our external respect not only shows respect for Almighty God, but it also gives us the interior knowledge that we are up to something important.
It is this need for external behavior which Jesus Christ and His Church recognize in the Sacraments and sacramentals. They are outward signs which actually confer grace with divine authority, as in the Sacraments—and outward signs instituted by the Church to give us grace and move us to the appropriate interior dispositions, as in the sacramentals. So today, the Church has us bless ashes and place them on our foreheads as an outward sign of the interior dispositions we hope to develop during the next forty days.
It is important, though, to recognize what we hear in the Gospel. Only hypocrites go about fasting and doing public penance with the hope of being seen and admired by their neighbors. We spoke about this a few Sundays ago as being the vice of the Pharisees; the men who had a trumpet blown when they distributed gifts to the poor; the men who exaggerated the provisions of the Mosaic Law in their dress, with widened tassels and enlarged prayer bands so that others would see them and admire them for their devotion to the Law. Such men are those spoken of by the Prophet Isaias: “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” Their reward for their behavior will be limited to the indulgence of their pride.
So, even though we place ashes on our foreheads tonight, we do so only so that we may develop that interior disposition of penance that will prepare us to celebrate the mysteries of our salvation in Holy Week and Easter. We must go home tonight and wash those ashes from our foreheads. We are called to penance, and prayer, and frequent reception of the Sacraments, to spiritual reading, and to doing good works for our neighbors. Not all of these things can be done in absolute secrecy, and there is no need to try, but we must remember that we are expected to do these things in order to draw genuinely closer to God, and not to indulge our foolish pride and need for worldly acclaim.
The Preface of this Mass—the prayer just before the Sanctus and the beginning of the Canon, which we will hear in a few minutes—tells us that the Lenten fast is intended to “extinguish our vices, elevate our understanding, and bestow upon us virtue and its reward.” The reward of virtue is eternal life with God in heaven, and not the acclaim of the world. Indeed, as I mentioned this past Sunday, a little persecution now and then is a good sign that we are following Christ as we should be doing, and have not been distracted by the temptations of the world.