Here’s something I wrote for the Jesuit School of Theology’s prayer blog, A Heart Renewed. You can subscribe to a daily reflection here: https://mysantaclara.scu.edu/JST_SeasonalEmails.
Famously, Ash Wednesday is the day more people go to church than any other, including Easter. Countless more people will receive ashes this day than will receive the Eucharist. We are strangely attracted to the mark of the ashes, a stark emblem of the mortal flesh that we bear, and of the death that is the inevitable destiny of each of us. Like the fire that generates them, ashes are primordial. They literally represent the judgment of Genesis 3:19: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We will one day become the ashes we wear—a humbling thought. And to be marked with ashes this day can indeed be a profound spiritual experience.
Despite the beauty of this sacramental observance, the Scriptures of the day ironically point us in another direction: “Rend your heart, not your garments,” counsels Joel, “and return to the LORD your God.” Jesus is even clearer: Do not perform religious rituals in public or parade your religiosity so that people will notice: “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden.” These exhortations could well make a case against pridefully wearing ashes in public. They are certainly an indictment of fetishizing religious ritual. The Scriptures of this day nudge us toward internal renewal, not outward show.
For despite its name, the point of this day is not ashes. The point of this day is mercy—seeking the mercy of our God, who is rich in kindness, abounding in steadfast love. The Psalmist, evoking the mortification of David, opens his heart to the God of mercy, begging forgiveness, the renewal of a faithful spirit, and the restoration of hope and joy. The Lenten drama takes place not in public places or in religious ritual (Ps 51:18–19), but in the hidden corners of the human heart, those parts seen only by God and most in need of God’s forgiving love. Freed by that love, we can even face death itself without fear, knowing that beyond the ashes there looms the fulfillment of life in the promise of resurrection.