Dear brothers and sisters,
Each year on this day as we enter into the penitential season of Lent, we hear Jesus say to us, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting…” (Matthew 6:16). Then, just a few moments later, we usually receive ashes directly on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. This custom has always struck me as directly contradictory to the command of the Savior that we “not appear to others to be fasting” (Matthew 6:18).
We have all heard homilies attempting to reconcile our practice with Jesus’ words, but all of these attempts have failed. The main reason given for our practice is so that we might be a sign of contradiction to the world by bearing the ashes on our foreheads, and this is true as far as it goes, but it still stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ words.
The use of ashes on Ash Wednesday began in Germany “in the tenth century; it spread to Italy and finally to Rome in the twelfth century. It was only in the thirteenth century that the papal liturgy used ashes with the pope himself submitting to the rite.” The use of ashes as a sign of repentance from sin goes back, of course, much further than 1,100 years ago. It is a common practice we find throughout the Old Testament. For example, in the First Book of Maccabees we read, “That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their garments” (I Maccabees 3:47). This year we have the opportunity to imitate those who went before us so very long ago.
We are accustomed to the priest blessing the ashes and they saying to each individual one of two admonitions – either, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” - before tracing the ashes upon our foreheads in the sign of the Cross. This year, however, will be different. The Holy See, in response to the conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, has directed that the priest is to say one of the admonitions to everyone at the same time and then to impose ashes not on the forehead, but on top of the head without saying anything.
As you come forward to receive ashes, I would ask that you bow your head as a sign of repentance. This will also help me be reach the top of the heads of some of you who are taller than me.
This will look and feel differently for you and for me, but we can use this change to our usual practice to better focus on what Lent is all about: an interior change of heart through an acknowledgement of our sins and repentance from them so that the Lord may give us back the joy of salvation (cf. Psalm 51:14). Amen.