and cleanse me of my sin.” (Psalm 51)
I’m starting my Lent by stealing. That’s most certainly a bad idea…but at least I’m not compounding the situation by lying about it, too!
The other day, Fr. Tom shared an idea for his homily with the students from Holy Family School, which he then used at their Ash Wednesday Mass earlier this morning. It’s that idea I’m stealing.
You see, Fr. Tom told the school children that we’d had such a huge crowd at the early Mass today that we ran out of ashes. But he also told the kids not to worry because he had found a substitute…which is when he pulled out a large, black, permanent marker.
Now, over the years I’ve had a few folks come up to me after Mass on Ash Wednesday asking for a second dose, since their first smudge of didn’t stick too well. Maybe permanent marker would be a better choice for some!
Since Old Testament times, ashes have been a sign of sorrow, of mourning, of repentance. They remind us of our humble beginnings—that God first formed man from the dust of the earth—and they remind us of our mortal end—that, on account of sin, we will die and return to dust and ashes once more. And, in my opinion anyway, ashes are therefore the perfect choice because—unlike that black marker—they don’t stay on your forehead forever. Ashes will wash off again.
People deal with their ashes in all kinds of ways. Some, as I’ve said, wear them around rather proudly. But I also often see bangs (for those of us who still have enough hair to do so) quickly moved back into place to cover over the black smear. More often than not, however, we simply overlook that they’re there—mistakenly brushing them away in the course of the day.
If you got your face dirty on any other day of the year, what would your natural instinct be? To scrub it clean, of course! And the sooner, the better! And that’s what Ash Wednesday calls us to, as well.
These ashes we’re about to receive are a sign of sorrow for our sins. And we deal with our sins in much the same way we deal with our ashes. Sometimes we flaunt them, or at least wallow in them awhile since we’re not really ready to let them go. Sometimes we attempt to hide them—from others, from ourselves, and even—always unsuccessfully—from God. Most often, we carry on as if, should we just forget about them or brush them aside, they will simply go away on their own.
But you and I both know: none of those techniques ever really works.
We need the same instinct for our dirty souls as we normally have for our dirty faces! When our hearts get grimy with sin, they need to be washed clean. It is for this that the Son of God came to dwell among us: to take away the sins of the world! It is for this that Christ died and rose again: to wash away our sins in his own blood!
In today’s gospel, Jesus advocates the traditional practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—acts of penance which are so much a part of our Lenten observance—as ways to tidy things up a bit. For minor transgressions, for our lesser weaknesses, those work just fine. But our serious sins require a bit more scrubbing. And so, through the Church, Christ has given us the Sacrament of Penance. Lent is our annual spiritual spring-cleaning, and confession is for deep down scouring. Don’t put it off! Don’t make excuses! Our sins don’t have to be permanent stains. “Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!” Resolve today that this Lent, during these coming forty days, you will allow the Lord, in his great mercy, to cleanse you to the core.
Jesus says, “When you fast, do not neglect your appearance. Wash your face.”
We’ve come here today—a day of fasting—for ashes: a mark that’s meant from the start to come off again. So before you go to bed tonight, be sure to wash your face. And before Easter dawns, be sure you’ve also allowed Christ to scrub your soul.