(Originally published at the Times Union.)
What is it about Ash Wednesday? What calls so many people into church? Is it the desire to show off our marked foreheads? If so, that runs in contradiction to today’s Gospel.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
But I got my ashes, shouldn’t people know? I mean, how can they not know?
We are an odd people, aren’t we? We like to go public with our ashes, which is unavoidable, but when it comes to discussing sin, we think that is too private. Many of us won’t even go to Confession. That’s between God and me, we allow ourselves to think. It is my private business! I’m not suggesting that we detail our sins, but it might help to admit that we have sinned. (Note: I stink at this.)
Perhaps we have this backwards?
In the booklet “Living Your Penance, Reconciliation and Renewal,” Michelle Francl-Donnay writes about a vase that she meant to put away, but did not. Subsequently, it was knocked over, leaving glass all over her kitchen floor, providing an apt metaphor for sin. She writes:
“Sin is a messy business, like the broken vase. Its effects extend beyond our lives, into the lives of those we love. Our assigned penance is a way to clean up the mess that sin has left in our world. Even when we think our sin is private, the effects of our personal sins can be felt in the larger world.”
So, should we should forego our ashes, and start publicly proclaiming our sins? No, it might mean that we are continually invited by God to see ourselves, and to see the world in a different way.
The prophet Joel in today’s first reading offers some insight to seeing differently.
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
As we begin Lent, we are invited to repent, and to be transformed. The ashes are important, but our acknowledgment of our sin is essential. God asks, with the clear implication of “no matter what,” with Joel saying, “even now.” Even now, after so much, no matter what, return to me, “with your whole heart.”
“Do I have to? My whole heart? What about the parts I don’t want to show you? Like the broken vase of sin on the floor of my heart? You know, the one I haven’t cleaned up after yet.”
God says to “rend our hearts,” or to tear them, which in this case means to open them to God. In my opinion, this may be the hardest part. And God knows this and wants to help. We are told not to show off in public. Should we avoid church or ashes? No. But remember, our heart trumps what we are doing on the outside.
What about our sin, which feels like our private business? As Francl-Donnay wrote, our sin is like shards of glass on the floor. We might not the glass, but if we walk on it, we get hurt. The cuts might seem so small, the shards of glass so tiny, we barely felt a pinprick. Then, a few hours or days later, an irritation develops from a splinter of glass that we don’t even remember stepping on.
Today – please think about going to church and getting your ashes.
Don’t wipe or wash them off, even if are tempted to do so. Don’t worry about it being too dark or smudgy, or maybe, not dark enough. Today, consider accepting the invitation to tear your heart, exposing those shards of broken glass that have never been cleaned up. May this act inspire the beginning of our acknowledgement of our sin, the rending of our hearts, turning towards God, and with that, the beginning of the transformation we can only know through Christ.
May we find our way to God this Lent, because, it seems as obvious as ashes on a forehead, God wants us back.