Lent is almost here, and you know what that means. It means a season of giving up things, especially indulgences like chocolate, or movies, or any other action that involves deprivation of favorite activities or foods. I’m always wary of people who give up coffee because I know that not only is it extraordinarily difficult for them, but it can make others’ lives a little touchy to be around them. Still, it’s the old way of doing things, to give up stuff for Lent that can be enjoyed again after Easter.
Deprivation is never fun. The lesson from Matthew addresses a part of this process. If it’s deliberate giving up, usually it’s a little easier to bear than if someone ordered it. If the doctor said that I had to give up things like pizza, fried foods, and just about everything that a good Southern girl would like to eat, that’s deprivation for me, although for someone else it might not be. I notice, though, no one ever asks that we give up things like carrots or cauliflower. For me, those would be no problem to give up at all.
With the coming of Lent, we first celebrate Ash Wednesday by going to church and having the mark of ashes put on our foreheads to remind us that we are just human, particles of dust that come together to form a living, functioning body until death and decay take over, and we become dust again. The imposition of ashes as part of our Ash Wednesday service is preparation for the time when all of us will cease to exist on this earthly plane, and it forces us to think about that. It’s something we don’t like to think about very often. Typically, we usually put off thinking about our deaths as long as possible.
When we come to Ash Wednesday, we have ashes on our foreheads; then we come to the annual problem: what to do for the rest of the day. Jesus told us to beware of practicing our piety before others. Isn’t wearing ashes out after church a form of practicing our piety before others? Isn’t it a mark that will seem to be outwardly religious, even if it’s just for that one day that we are very obvious about it? What about the number of times someone will come up and say, “Excuse me, but you have dirt on your forehead.” How do we respond to that? Do we go to a restroom immediately after church and wash it off so that we aren’t challenged about the dirt? Another choice is to leave it on and use it as a device to explain to others why we have it and what it means to us.
What exactly did Jesus mean about not practicing piety before others? My thinking is that it is walking around with a pleasant face rather than look like one like I am enduring some acute pain or agony so that people will offer me sympathy. It isn’t about trying to look like it’s a substantial inward struggle to wear ashes, or even to give up coffee. Observant Jewish males walk around with yarmulkes, and hardly anyone ever says anything about it if they note it at all. Why would ashes once a year be any different?
I notice that there are folks who do like to make themselves look miserable. They do it partly so that they could explain that they are observing the beginning of Lent with a reminder of our mortality. Is that the right way of opening a conversation about the Good News of Jesus? Likewise, people who know of our religious backgrounds may ask what we’re giving up for Lent. If we put on a miserable face, some of those questioners might ask themselves if we’re following something painful or extreme, like self-flagellation or hours spent on our knees in prayer and repentance when it’s only abstaining from chocolate or meat on Fridays.
It’s like being on the second week of a new diet. The novelty of wearing the ashes is over and the giving up (or taking on) the Lenten practices where the struggle genuinely begins. The battle isn’t whether or not to wear ashes during the day after church on Ash Wednesday; it’s what we do as a form of penance without making ourselves so obvious to the rest of the world that we’re doing it.
Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert. Did he leave the experience with deep wrinkles on his face or did he forget how to smile at the end of it? There was no one to give him sympathy. There was only one to offer him temptations which would appeal to a need or desire of most humans. The response to the temptation is the difference between the practice being a performance or being a reality, and there’s where our Lenten problem comes in. Are we doing this for the right reasons?
This week, on Ash Wednesday, it is every individual’s choice as to how they proceed. Do they wash off the ashes or do they wear them? If they wear them, what do their faces say about the fact that they have a mark of dirt on their face that may cause comment? Are they doing it for the right reason, as a profession of faith, a sincerely held belief, or only to attract attention? It is a tough choice.
What would Jesus decide to do?
Image: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian on Ash Wednesday. Own work by Jennifer Balaska. Found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.