Ash Wednesday is like the Lone Ranger getting his masked ripped off or having all your boyfriends see you without your makeup or showing up at work one day in your pajamas. And the reason is that on Ash Wednesday, each of us stands before God and everybody else with foreheads smudged with ashes. The basic message is “I am a sinner.” Receiving ashes is not simply an act of traditional Catholic piety and devotion, not just one more way to show others that we are Catholics. Receiving ashes is first a public statement that my mask is off. “I am a sinner.”
In the first reading of this day’s liturgy from the prophet Joel, the following proclamation is made: “Blow the trumpet in Zion! proclaim a fast, call an assembly; Gather the people, notify the congregation; Assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast” . . . and all that because I am a sinner.
Lent is about two things. The first is how to get the mask off and the second is how to live with it off.
Lent is primarily about humility, about the truth, about being me without the mask: I am a sinner. The Word of God spoken to us in the liturgies throughout Lent is meant to bring us to humility. Our living together as Christians in the Church during this season also provides the opportunity for us to listen to and take seriously what others are saying about us, about the darkness they see in us, about our weaknesses. Lent is the time when we take a good look at ourselves every day in the mirror.
Secondly, Lent is about practicing against our sin. That is the meaning of penance. Lenten penance is meant to fit the sin. It is not just “giving up something” or “doing something more.” Lenten penance takes our sin very seriously and practices against it.
If my sin is in my body, for example, if I overindulge in food or drink or abuse my sexuality, then my Lenten penance should practice against it by fasting or abstaining or disciplining myself more carefully. If my sin is in my mind and imagination, like when I keep reading or looking at or thinking about something that pulls me downward, then I must practice against the sin by a Lenten penance that closes the cover of the book or magazine, turns the TV or computer off or puts something better in my head. If my sin is in my heart, in the way I am speaking to or acting toward or thinking hurtfully about spouse or children or friends and colleagues or even my enemies, then my Lenten penance should practice against the sin. Perhaps I need to choose to do at least one good deed each day for someone I offend. And if my sin is in my spirit, that is, in the way I am with God in my life, if I have abandoned faith or don’t really pray anymore, then the Lenten penance should practice against my sin by a decision like struggling to spend at least three minutes a day prayerfully seeking God’s presence.
Lent is forty days of humility and penance. It is forty days of getting the mask off. Jesus does not speak kindly of hypocrites in our Ash Wednesday Gospel reading. The hypocrite is the masked man or woman, the person we no longer want to be. Lent is forty days of practicing living with the mask off. We must be concerned, as St. Paul writes in the Second Letter to the Corinthians today, to “not receive the grace of God in vain.” How many of us have done that? What has happened in our life history to the wonderful Baptismal grace we once received? What have we come to, despite the great acts of God’s love in each of our lives? We need to live again with the mask off.
On Ash Wednesday we are invited to be marked with ashes. When we look at one another today smudged with ashes, we are saying to each other that our masks are off.
As we leave the Church today, there will be people who see us with the ashes on our forehands. Some may say, “Oh, I see you are a Catholic!” Our best response would be to say, “Oh no, I am a sinner!”