Why many Christians disfigure their faces on Ash Wednesday.
By DAVID MILLS
February 10, 2016 •
It’s a strange practice, this putting ashes on people’s foreheads once a year, on the appropriately named Ash Wednesday. Catholics do it, and many Episcopalians and Lutherans, increasing numbers of other Protestant churches, and even a few Baptists.
The ashes are made by burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. The priest marks a small cross on your forehead and tells you that you are dust (like Adam), and to dust you shall return (like Adam). He is, as the joke goes, rubbing it in. Traditionally people wear the mark the whole day as they leave the church and go about their regular lives.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the season of forty days of preparation for Passion week and Easter. It is a day of prayer and fasting with a special service to call people to observe a holy Lent. Western Christians have been doing this since the early Middle Ages. (The Orthodox churches don’t observe Ash Wednesday. Their Lent begins on a Monday.)
It’s not only a strange practice, it’s a practice that bothers many Christians. They ask why other Christians do this when Jesus seems to have ruled it out. “When you fast,” he 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.”
Most of us can relate. Being able to talk with God isn’t enough for us. We want to be praised for it too. And if we have to dramatize things to get people to notice, we’re happy to do that.
Knowing how we are, Jesus says very clearly, “Don’t make a mess of your face. If someone praises you for praying so hard, that’s all the reward you’re going to get. God wants you to keep this between Him and you.” So no ashes on your forehead. The whole point of smearing ashes on your forehead is to disfigure it in a way everyone else is bound to notice.
So Why Do So Many Christians Do It?
Why do Catholics and other Christians do it anyway? Jesus did say no. But He didn’t say no to what many of us do on Ash Wednesday. Jesus means a private fast made public so that people would applaud. He’s talking about someone who’s doing something by himself, who makes himself look miserable and then says to the world, “Hey, look at me, I’m praying hard.” Adding, under his voice, “And you’re not.”
Jesus isn’t referring to something his followers would do together and in public. You don’t get any rewards for doing the same thing as everyone else, no matter how miserable you make yourself look. If someone at church the Sunday after Ash Wednesday declared, “Hey, I had ashes put on my forehead last Wednesday,” he’d get an answer like “Big whoop.” It is like asking for praise because you didn’t sing a hymn during the sermon or came to the 11:00 am service at 11:00 am. You win no fame or favor for doing what everyone is supposed to do.
For Catholics, one of the great points of 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 don’t have to worry about showing off because you’re not showing off — you’re just doing what everyone else is doing. You’re just part of the marching band turning left when everyone else does, not a soloist standing at the front of the stage.
The goal is that by doing what you’re supposed to, even if you don’t feel like it, you’ll begin to feel it more. When the priest says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” you will begin to understand a little better that you are God’s special creation but also a creation that has rejected his will for you. You think you’re so special, but you’re dust. And that should help you love the one who died for you a little more than you do.
Not Magic Spells
These rituals aren’t magic spells. You can go to church on Ash Wednesday with a hard heart and feel and learn nothing. But the fact that some people won’t take their medicine doesn’t say anything about the medicine.
Years ago I walked into a room where a friend was doing his voice exercises with some other singers. They sounded like whales trying to yodel. He was a little embarrassed, but not much, because he was doing this odd thing with other people because their teacher told them to. If they kept at it, it would help them do something — sing very difficult parts — they wanted to do. In rituals like the imposition of ashes, the church as a teacher gives her people something they can do to get better at something — love God and man more deeply — they want to do.
One other thing should be said. You may wipe off the ashes when you leave the service, and many people do. I would not ignore the usefulness of keeping the ashes as a public witness. As a new Christian, I was 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 faith as to wear its marks in public.
For David Mills’ reflection on the Ash Wednesday service and how it is hopeful as well as penitential, see Remember That Thou Art Dust.
Parts of “Hey, Buddy, Jesus Said No Ashes” are taken from his “The Dust of Adam,” which appeared in the March 2004 issue of Touchstone. It won the Honorable Mention (third place) for “Best Seasonal Article” in the Associated Church Press’s 2004 awards.