March 6, 2019
(Joel 2:1-18; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
Today, depending on where we live, we’ll likely see (or have seen) people with ashes on their foreheads indicating that they’ve been to Mass. It might seem strange that we do what the gospel exhorts not to do. When we fast we are not to look gloomy but to wash our faces. We are also told to perform righteous deeds in secret; give alms without letting the left hand know what the right is doing, and pray in an inner room with no audience where only God will hear and see you.
The lesson of the gospel is that our deeds should be done for God the Father, not anyone else. That is something to which we may aspire, but do our actions match our words? How many churches use envelopes for weekly giving? How many annual funds prints names and amounts of donors, sometimes in categories ranked by the amount given? There are reasons for such things, but they seem to contradict a plain reading of today’s gospel. How much has to be stripped away before we are doing deeds solely for the Father rather than to receive the reward of other’s admiration? Much as we may hesitate to admit it, our acts of kindness, deeds of righteousness, and alms of sacrifice may be accompanied by a bit of pride.
The exhortation from Jesus today is a reminder that crowds, neighbors, friends, or fellow Christians are not the audience for our works. In fact, if they are, we have already received our reward. Instead, God the Father is our “audience” and it is He alone that we should seek to impress, to put it in those terms.
There is a temptation among religious people to be seen or perceived as “doing it right.” Many religious people take care to be seen at church. Maybe they want others to know they have fulfilled their duty. That kind of attitude was prevalent in antiquity too. But that approach is not sufficient for a disciple of Christ. Our mission is to perform deeds of mercy for God the Father without seeking glory or attention from fellow human beings.
In the end, Jesus lived this mission as he faced death on the cross. What must that have looked like to those around him? Only those cursed by God were hanged on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). But to be true to his calling he fulfilled this mission, and received a reward from God the Father, which is life eternal.
As we know, Ash Wednesday marks the onset of the Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and abstinence. It is also known as the 'Day of Ashes'.
The name 'Day of Ashes' comes from "Dies Cinerum" in the Roman Missal and is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary. The concept originated by the Roman Catholics somewhere in the 6th century. Though the exact origin of the day is not clear, the custom of marking the head with ashes on this Day is said to have originated during the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604).
In the Old Testament ashes were found to have used for two purposes: as a sign of humility and mortality; and as a sign of sorrow and repentance for sin.
Originally the use of ashes to betoken penance was a matter of private devotion. Later it became part of the official rite for reconciling public penitents. In this context, ashes on the penitent served as a motive for fellow Christians to pray for the returning sinner and to feel sympathy for him. Still later, the use of ashes passed into its present rite of beginning the penitential season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. In some country’s ashes are “sprinkled” on the tops of one’s head while in others the making of a cross on one’s forehead.
Putting a 'cross' mark on the forehead was in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian in baptism. This is when the newly born Christian is delivered from slavery to sin and the devil, and made a slave of righteousness and Christ (Rom. 6:3-18).
This can also be held as an adoption of the way 'righteousness' are described in the book of Revelation, where we come to know about the servants of God. The reference to the sealing of the servants of God for their protection in Revelation is an allusion to a parallel passage in Ezekiel, where Ezekiel also sees a sealing of the servants of God for their protection:
"And the LORD said to him [one of the four cherubim], 'Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark [literally, "a tav"] upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.' And to the others he said in my hearing, 'Pass through the city after him, and smite; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity; slay old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one upon whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.' So they began with the elders who were before the house." (Ezekiel 9:4-6)
Unfortunately, like most modern translations, the one quoted above is not sufficiently literal. What it actually says is to place a tav on the foreheads of the righteous inhabitants of Jerusalem. Tav is one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and in ancient script it looked like the Greek letter chi, which happens to be two crossed lines (like an "x") and which happens to be the first letter in the word "Christ" in Greek Christos. The Jewish rabbis commented on the connection between tav and chi and this is undoubtedly the mark Revelation has in mind when the servants of God are sealed in it.
The early Church Fathers seized on this tav-chi-cross-christos connection and expounded it in their homilies, seeing in Ezekiel a prophetic foreshadowing of the sealing of Christians as servants of Christ. It is also part of the background to the Catholic practice of making the sign of the cross, which in the early centuries (as can be documented from the second century on) was practiced by using one's thumb to furrow one's brow with a small sign of the cross, like Catholics do today at the reading of the Gospel during Mass.
May we all keep a good Lent and act out our penances in the sight of God alone.
Let us pray.
That the season of Lent will be a time of greater prayer and fervent devotion for us and for the whole Church. We pray to the Lord.
That these days of Lent will be marked by earnest efforts at peacemaking throughout the world. We pray to the Lord.
That we be generous in our almsgiving this Lent and attentive to the poor. We pray to the Lord.
That this Lent we will be faithful to fasting and to all the ways that the Lord sanctifies us. We pray to the Lord.
That God will repair all the broken relationships in our life and make us merciful , gentle and forgiving. We pray to the Lord.
That God will rescue all those who live at a distance from him or who left the practice of the faith. We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, bless our observance of Lent so that we will live as your faithful, holy children until death. We ask all these through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA.