Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Today we began our 40 day fast, our 40 days of penance in preparation for Baptism. In the early days of the Church, those who were converting underwent a few years of instruction, and the 40 days of penance and fasting in preparation for Baptism was likely far more stringent than our spoiled culture of today could endure. And the entire Church went through this period of preparation with the catechumans. Isn't that fascinating?
When I was a litte girl, I remember being somewhat excited about Ash Wednesday, because it was the only time during the year we were allowed to approach the altar. We never got anything to eat like Mom did later during Mass, and we were always suspicious of what was going on up there, but receiving the ashes always seemed to placate us to a certain extent.
We were NOT allowed to wipe our foreheads, though. No matter how much it "itched", we had to keep the ashes planted right where they had been set. Mom had been raised in a Catholic school by olde-tyme nuns who weren't afraid to say what was what. But I think they must have suggested at some point that removing them might be a sin, because according to Mom, we must NEVER remove the ashes until it was time for sleep.
She explained that wearing the ashes was a form of penance; because it was uncomfortable, because people stared at us while we walked around with dirt on our foreheads, etc, it was to lead to a mysterious virtue called "humility". We didn't "get it", but if she caught us surrepetitiously trying to wipe the ashes off, she'd stop us.
This is how it was for my family, and for many others, I suspect. So as I grew up, we never removed our ashes, and as this was the way I was raised, I didn't really question it.
But as I got older, it hasn't been an issue. I go to Mass in the evening, so I just go home bearing my ashes on my forehead, and keep our family observance without involving the rest of the world. (Until now...and now I have a dilemma; now that you KNOW I have ashes on my forehead, amd I required to remove them to avoid making an outward sign of penance, even though you can't see me? This is going to keep me awake all night....)
There are many arguments both for and against keeping the ashes if you have to go out in public and about your day. I would say it's definitely NOT a sin to remove them, but each individual has to make the decision as to what they would prefer to do. And each has to ask if whatever their choice is, is it being done for the right reason?
Father Powell has a great post up which has convinced me to never go out in public with ashes on my forehead ever again. His point is that, as we read in the scriptures, to not have an outward sign of penance, by the direct order of Jesus. (Thank you, Father Powell).
Yet at the same time, on Relevant Radio Sean Herriott and Douglas Bushman, and apparently Father Rocky discussed this very thing and seemed to be in favor of the ashes being left. They tend to think that is is a good witness to other Catholics and even non-Catholics as it gets people to recognize the beginning of Lent and to talk about it. They see it as a form of evangelization.
What amazes me about Ash Wednesday is that I have heard more about whether or not to leave the ashes on than I have about what Lent MEANS! Quite honestly, if we're more worried about ashes on our foreheads than the interior conversion we are SUPPOSED to be thinking about, then we are missing the entire point of Ash Wednesday.
"Man, thou art dust, and to dust you shall return."