Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Season of Lent; for those of us who take these Seasons seriously, it is a time to take a look at how we live our lives as Christians and how much we have allowed ourselves to become enslaved by our habits, our greed and our self-involvement. We are encouraged to give something up and pray more deeply.
The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday always seems to stand in contradiction to what we, especially as Catholics, receive - the priest places ashes on our foreheads too remind us that we live a passing life in this world ("Remember man that thou are dust and to dust thou shall return") and to live it wisely ("Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel") and encourages us not to wipe them off.
Now, as I have heard mentioned many times, surely Jesus urges us not to be like the hypocrites who stand on street corners, looking gloomy and pulling long faces so people know we are fasting. Indeed, He tells us:"...when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no-one will know that you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret." So, why do we keep the ashes on our head?
The answer lies in the response of those who see us; in the time of Christ, the 'outwardly' religious would make a big show of their prayers and their fasting, knowing that it would invite compliments and sympathy. The word hypocrite here takes us back to its original meaning of 'actor': those acting in such a way were playing a role or a part and, like actors throughout time, seeking approbation and applause. It has now come to mean someone who is a liar
If we wear ashes on our heads in public, it draws comment of misunderstanding -"you've got something on your head, mate", "have you hurt yourself?" or abuse. Wearing ashes is a sign of contradiction to the world, as much a contradiction as in the times of Christ was that of praying and fasting privately.
More than that, it is an encouragement to others in their own faith - in a world where wearing a crucifix in a care home is considered a 'health and safety issue' or offering a prayer for someone is a reason for being disciplined, a quiet public witness is not a bad thing.
As for the fasting and (on Ash Wednesday and Fridays) abstaining from meat, that should be done in good humour and without drawing attention to ourselves - as far as possible, that is. I will be honest, I am a terrible faster: from the moment I wake up in the morning until I go to bed at night, I am starving - it is ridiculous I know. I can go all day without eating normally but once it is required, it really bothers me. Weird hey? Why do we fast? That brings me back to the beginning of this post: it is a time to take a look at how we live our lives as Christians and how much we have allowed ourselves to become enslaved by our habits, our greed and our self-involvement.
We follow the example of our Saviour who, before He began His mission, fasted for 40 days and nights to face all that the devil could throw at Him in His weakened state, and was thus strengthened. We fast and sacrifice so that we may be strengthened to face the trials and temptations of life.
However, we don't only 'give something up', we also use the time to strengthen our prayer lives and to, as Jesus reminds us in the Gospel, "go into your private room and, when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place..." We need a period of time to refuel, to spiritually reconnect with the deepest parts of our being where only we know ourselves and God knows who we truly are. This is what some call the 'inner tabernacle' which we need to spend time reflecting upon so we might assess our lives and turn to God for His Grace.
So - fasting and prayer are part of Lent. So is undertaking charitable acts - be it by donating what is saved by our fasting to a good cause or by giving of the time we have saved by not watching the telly as much or whatever. We do it quietly, as the gospel reminds us "when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing" - or, put as my grandma would have said, "giving has no bells."
Lent can seem very tough and without much light, but it needn't be...it has the joy of Spring flowers growing, one using time more creatively, losing weight (depending on what we may have given up) and, most wonderfully of all, the knowledge that if we do it well, "your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you."
Now, that's worth ash on the head.