Now begins the joyful season of Lent. That’s a theme that often gets overlooked, but it’s in the mass. You’ll hear it eventually in the preface of the canon.
For a long time, although not from the beginning, Christians have tended to wallow in sentiments of guilt and contrition. Catholics were especially adept. Not that they didn’t have reason to regret a lot of their activity, all things considered. But the liturgies of Lent, including the custom of rubbing ashes into our foreheads, remind us of something far more important. The world has been redeemed. The reign of sin and death has been ended. Christ, slain for our sins, has been raised for our justification. Sin has no more claim on us — unless we voluntarily surrender to it.
Sporting a smudge of black ash on your forehead for a few hours has the force of novelty, but if that’s all it is, it’s just a cosmetic prank. It will certainly get
you noticed when you order your fish tacos at Chipotle. But if we kept it on all through Lent, now that would be something else. Wearing sackcloth would add some flair, if you could find any. But in the end, if that’s as far as it went, we’d still be just marking time and drawing a lot of attention to ourselves. It’s hard to get past the prophet Joel’s caution, “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” [Joel 2:13] Or what Jesus says in today’s gospel about calling attention to ourselves by acts of piety:
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” [Mat 6:16-18].
It’s very impressive when rich donors give a vast sum to an institution or worthy cause and, in exchange, get to name a building or a program after themselves or at least get written up in the annual report. What I find more impressive is the line that reads “Anonymous gift.” It has the ring of something Jesus would recommend.
Metanoia, repentance, means a transformation of consciousness, a refreshing of the heart. After we have removed the ashes, if we are not a little kinder, more generous and forgiving, less censorious, and more helpful, all this really is a waste of time. And time is precious. So as you come forward to get your forehead daubed with the ashes of last year’s palms, lift up your hearts, be joyful in the Lord, smile. Resolve to do your good deeds without notice, for we are beginning the season of metanoia. We are preparing our minds and hearts for the great feast of our redemption. And remember: it helps to look redeemed.