Gospel Reflection for Ash Wednesday, 2021 -- Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
In light of today’s Gospel reading, and as a convert to the Catholic form of Christianity, I often, in the past, had a bit of cognitive dissonance with the act of marking our foreheads with a dark black, highly visible cross. Isn’t this in direct contradiction to the words of Christ in today’s Gospel? “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them...” In fact, Jesus, more than once chastised the Jewish leaders, the Scribes and Pharisees for their prideful displays of public piety.
But, is this what we’re doing today, on Ash Wednesday — the first day of Lent?
Yes, today marks the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and abstinence. It has also been known as the "Day of Ashes," so-called, as I mentioned above because on this day at churches around the world the faithful traditionally have their foreheads marked with ashes in the shape of a cross. Though, I fear that this tradition is being modified due to unscientific fears caused by the pandemic.
Today, have no such concerns. As we bless and apply the Ashes, we do this as a corporate act of contrition and mourning for our individual sins, and the sins of the whole world. If we’re doing this as the Body of Christ, the Church, where is the pride? Rather, this becomes a communal act of sorrow and humility.
The name 'Day of Ashes' comes from "Dies Cinerum" in the Roman Missal and is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary. The concept originated by the Catholics in Rome, sometime in the 6th century. The custom of marking the head with ashes is said to have originated during the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604).
The custom of using ashes was an Old Testament practice, and was used for two purposes: as a sign of humility and mortality; and as a sign of sorrow and repentance for sin. The Christian connotation for ashes in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday has also been taken from this Old Testament biblical custom.
Receiving ashes on the head as a reminder of mortality and a sign of sorrow for sin was a practice of the Anglo-Saxon church in the 10th century. It was made universal throughout the Western church at the Synod of Benevento in 1091.
Originally the use of ashes to betoken penance was a matter of private devotion. Later it became part of the official rite for reconciling public penitents. In this context, ashes on the penitent served as a motive for fellow Christians to pray for the returning sinner and to feel sympathy for him. Still later, the use of ashes passed into its present rite of beginning the penitential season of Lent on Ash Wednesday.
Putting the mark of a cross on the forehead may also have been in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian in baptism. This is when the newly born Christian is delivered from slavery to sin and the devil and made a slave of righteousness and Christ (Rom. 6:3-18).
This can also be held as an adoption of the way 'righteousness' is described in the book of Revelation, where we come to know about the servants of God. The reference to the sealing of the servants of God for their protection in Revelation is an allusion to a parallel passage in Ezekiel, where Ezekiel also sees a sealing of the servants of God for their protection:
"And the LORD said to him [one of the four cherubim], 'Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark [literally, "a tav"] upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.' And to the others he said in my hearing, 'Pass through the city after him, and smite; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity; slay old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one upon whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.' So they began with the elders who were before the house." (Ezekiel 9:4-6)
Unfortunately, like most modern translations, the one quoted above, is not sufficiently literal. What it actually says is to place a "tav" on the foreheads of the righteous inhabitants of Jerusalem. Tav is one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and in the ancient script, it looked like the Greek letter chi, which happens to be two crossed lines (like an "x") and which happens to be the first letter in the word "Christ" in Greek Christos). The Jewish rabbis commented on the connection between tav and chi and this is undoubtedly the mark Revelation has in mind when the servants of God are sealed in it.
The early Church Fathers seized on this tav-chi-cross-christos connection and expounded it in their homilies, seeing in Ezekiel a prophetic foreshadowing of the sealing of Christians as servants of Christ. It is also part of the background to the Catholic practice of making the sign of the cross, which in the early centuries (as can be documented from the second century on) was practiced by using one's thumb to furrow one's brow with a small sign of the cross like Catholics do today at the reading of the Gospel during Mass.
Today, it is my prayerful suggestion, that in receiving the ashes, you do so as an act of contrition, with purposeful humility, praying and fasting for the Father’s mercy and forgiveness. Pray also with love and compassion for your neighbors, pray for the souls of those most in need of His mercy — our nation, and the whole world.
GOSPEL — Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Jesus said to 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. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”