“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Today, millions of people will hear that text read, and then will go out proudly displaying the ashes on their foreheads, and not feel any disconnect. Some Catholics and Lutherans and others do, and will wash their faces after mass and go their way. In much of the Catholic world, however, ashes are not daubed on the forehead in the form of a cross, but are merely sprinkled on top of the head in a much less conspicuous way.
Ash Wednesday is a day that priests often grumble about; the masses are filled, and yet it is not a holy day of obligation–no one has to go to church that day! They also grumble about the way people regard the ashes as if they were a sacrament, or a blessing–all they are is a sign that you are dust and are going to die.
A year ago Julius Nam posted some reflections on Ash Wednesday, that prompted a lively discussion. He suggested,
Ash Wednesday is the perfect symbol for a people believing themselves to be living the antitypical Day of Atonement. Ash Wednesday and Lent represent what Adventism has aspired for—modesty, introspection, self-denial, stewardship, repentance, sanctification, even dietary care. Yes, one may criticize Catholics for the Mardi Gras tradition that just precedes this day and the ritualization of self-denial over the next 40 days. But what will that accomplish? Rather, we can join and work with Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and other Christians in promoting a truly Christlike season of meekness, humility, and self-sacrifice—on the stewardship of the environment, health, finances, entertainment, education, etc. Possibilities are endless.