At first glance, Ash Wednesday’s readings are incredibly ironic. In the first reading, the prophet Joel says to “Blow the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly, gather the people” (Joel 2:15-16). But then the Gospel reading says to NOT blow trumpets or be hypocrites by giving alms or praying in the streets to win the praise of others (Matthew 6:2). Ok… so, trumpets or no trumpets? Walk around with ashes on our foreheads, or don’t show off our faith and proclaim our participation in Lent?
When we dive deeper into the meaning of these readings, we see that they’re really referring to our internal disposition to being in relationship with God. They call us to really think about WHY we are doing these things – are we publicly proclaiming our faith because we believe and want to share it with others? Or do we enjoy the attention and making it seem like we are holier than we really are? The hypocrites Matthew talks about are the people without genuine intentions, who find it more important to talk about the external benefits of giving money or accomplishing a challenging Lenten sacrifice than to actually focus on the internal, spiritual benefits of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
These scriptures remind us to focus on the WHY of our actions. To remember that when we promise to give up social media, or TV, or Netflix, as a Lenten sacrifice, but then use that extra free time for something else idle, we’re missing the point. It’s not until we point that sacrifice toward Heaven that we will see some type of benefit in our relationship with God – for example, using that time we would have spent staring at a screen and instead look at God, whether that be through increasing prayer time, reading a spiritual book, spending more genuine time with family, or serving others face-to-face.
So why ashes? How do they remind us of what Lent is about? When distributing ashes, there are two options the minister can say: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospels.” The first reminds us that all we have is a gift from God, recalling the passage in Genesis where God forms Adam out of clay with his hands – an intimate, life-giving look into who God is and how much he loves us. The second, words of St. John the Baptist, who tells us to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Messiah.
In the first reading from Joel, we see a bigger picture of the messages echoed by all of the Old Testament prophets: hope and repent – because the Messiah is coming. “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is He” (Joel 2:13). We are able to look at ashes and see hope, because we know a God who can make something out of nothing, humanity from a pile of ashes and clay, and Resurrection out of darkness. So, as we head into this Lenten season, let’s all take some extra time to truly prepare our hearts.