Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the prophet Joel. We don’t know much about the author, but his meaning is clear. He is calling the people to repentance, to return to the Lord, and to listen to his commands. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus pointedly tells his disciples not to do good things (e.g. fasting, giving to the poor) so that other people will think well of you. He suggest that if only God sees your piety or generosity, He will reward you. If you do it only for your glory, God will not be impressed.
Before I begin the homily I have to make a confession: if you’ve been reading this for more than a year you may recognize this homily. The readings every year are the same and I’ve decided to rerun my Ash Wednesday homily from the previous year. If you’re new to this blog it’s new to you and if you’re one of the original readers, you’ll read it again. Then again, perhaps there’s some value to that. We’re all a year older and have added a year’s experience to our lives. So enjoy!
I have to confess that Ash Wednesday has always amused me a little. When I was growing up there were feasts during the year, like the Feast of the Assumption that were holy days of obligation. Even though they were weekdays where we all went to school or work, we were expected to go to church. Attendance was always mixed at best, particularly if the holy day was Thursday and we needed to finish mass to make way for the weekly bingo. But Ash Wednesday, which has never been a holy day, was always packed. I used to work at a church that was near several office buildings; we had to have 2 midday masses: 11:15 and 12:30 to accommodate all the people who wanted to go to mass for the lunch hour.
It was also the day we could find out who else was Catholic. The ashes that were placed in the sign of the cross on our foreheads were a giveaway, and I’ve always suspected that was one of the reasons for the large attendance. Once, in college, I went to mass on Ash Wednesday and then to dinner at McDonalds (did I mention I was in college and had no money?). There I ran into someone I knew well but didn’t know was Catholic. We shared filet o fish sandwiches and laughed over the fact that McDonalds didn’t understand why so many of us with smudges were ordering fish. It was kind of a fun bond. From that day we always knew that if we saw someone else with the “mark of a Catholic” we shared a common belief system.
That public display was nice, but does that negate the Gospel where Jesus says to do these things anonymously? If I’m doing this to show others what I believe in the hope that they will respect me, what does that do for my spiritual health? How does that draw me closer to God?
That, perhaps, is the hardest part of these two readings. Joel tells us to “proclaim a solemn assembly” while Matthew tells us to go quietly to our room and not make much noise. In an ironic twist, it is perhaps a mark of the success of Jesus’ teachings that this is even an issue. Jesus’ teachings that we should be humble and make sure that God alone knows of our piety is not a universal value. In the pagan world it was (and in some places still is) a value to draw attention to ourselves. They puff themselves up and exaggerate their importance because their reputation among their peers (or underlings) is of grave importance.
This isn’t true just among ancient pagans: look at pop culture to see how many hopefuls crave the admiration of others and look to those groups for their own sense of worth. If we take this Gospel seriously we should hope for the respect of our peers over the adulation of strangers. And the fact that we can be concerned over how our humility and desire for repentance appears is a mark that we are on the right path.
Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t also speak of Ash Wednesday as the beginning of the Season of Lent. Many of us remember being asked as children (and being evaluated on our answer) what we were “giving up for Lent.” Invariably we were asked to give up something we liked and this lack would bring us closer to God. Over the years I’ve done by share of this; giving up everything from candy to soda to alcohol. But I also think we can look beyond giving up something we enjoy. If the purpose of Lent is to help us renew our relationship with God and not be distracted by worldly things, can we do something else? I’ve heard some suggestions that intrigue me. Years ago I read about someone who was committed to picking up a piece of trash every day. He reasoned that while it wouldn’t make much difference in the gross tonnage of trash in the world, it would make him more aware of the world around him. I also spoke with someone who pledged not to look away when he saw people holding signs and asking for money on traffic islands. He told me he wasn’t always able to help everyone but the least he could do is acknowledge the holiness of the other person.
But however we commemorate Ash Wednesday and Lent, let us remind ourselves that we are committed to a sense of constant renewal to ourselves, each other, and God. Hopefully when we celebrate Easter next month we can look back on this time with appropriate humility.