Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wash or Witness?

Yesterday, we had a spirited internal e-mail discussion among Fraters contributors (believe it or not, there are things we don't share with the world on this blog or Twitter) about what the proper practice was after receiving ashes at Mass on Ash Wednesday. Should you follow Jesus' teaching to not be like the hypocrites who make a show of their fasting and piety and wipe the ashes from your head after Mass? Or should you keep the ashes on to bear witness to your faith? Despite our impressive theological cred, we weren't able to satisfactorily resolve the matter among ourselves.

As David Mills notes in a post (lengthy but worth reading) called The Dust of Adam at First Thoughts both choices are easily defensible and likely equally acceptable:

“When you fast,” Jesus says to us in the Sermon on the Mount, “do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear to men to be fasting. Truly, I say unto you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face; that you appear not to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place.”

So much, you might think, for the traditional imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. In liturgical churches, the priest or pastor marks a small cross on your forehead with ashes, traditionally made by burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. As he does so, he tells you that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

This seems to be exactly the sort of thing Jesus rejected. After all, the point of smearing ashes on your forehead is to disfigure it in a way everyone else is bound to notice. But Jesus is referring to a private fast made public so that people would applaud. He is not referring to a public ritual, which by definition cannot be observed in secret and for observing which you earn no applause. Jesus himself observed the public feasts and fasts of his day.

A great value of liturgical disciplines is that you can do the things you ought to do without worrying about whether you are doing them for the right reasons. You win no fame or favor for doing what everyone is supposed to do. As a simple test, grab someone at church the Sunday after Ash Wednesday and say, “Hey, I had ashes put on my forehead last Wednesday.” The answer you will get will be some variation of “Big whoop.” It is like asking for approval because you didn’t sing a hymn during the sermon or came to the 11:00 service at 11:00.

And of course you may wipe off the ashes when you leave the service, so that it remains private in the sense of remaining within the gathered community. Having enacted the lesson liturgically, having the ashes smeared on your forehead, you will have ashes smeared on your heart.

But all that said, I would not ignore the usefulness of keeping the ashes as a public witness. I was, as a new Christian, deeply affected by seeing hundreds of people walking around Boston one late winter’s day with smudges on their foreheads, and finding out that evening, from a woman at a seafood restaurant, why she had that mark on her face. It had never occurred to me that people could be so confident in their religion as to wear its marks in public.

So the answer seems to be do what you're comfortable with. Personally, I've taken both routes in the past and can understand the arguments for each of them. This year the choice was made easier for me when the priest mentioned during his homily that "many of you will now return to work with the ashes on your forward as a message to all that you've made a commitment to become a better Christian" (or something to that effect). Pretty hard to wipe after having that expectation set out there.

And there is something to be said for having the confidence to publicly display your faith in such a manner. It's just hard to know sometimes when you're crossing that line between witnessing for Christ and drawing attention to yourself.