Ashes on our forehead: More than a symbol

Yesterday, many of us had the sign of the cross marked on our foreheads with blessed ashes. For some, it might be the only day in the year in which their faith is on display. By being marked with these ashes, we forego the ability to keep our faith and convictions to ourselves. We are marked as "Christian," the name given to the earliest followers of Jesus who proclaimed Him as the Lord. To be known as a Christian means that others know not only what we value, but also to Whom we belong.

For many, this public display of faith can be frightening, particularly in our current climate. Many non-believers, especially in pop culture, mock Christians, depict us as irrational or say that our convictions are outdated. Our deeply held beliefs about human sexuality, marriage and the family are increasingly portrayed as a threat to the common good. We are on the precipice of certain national decisions which will affect our freedom to live our faith in its fullness.

In our culture, to be known as a Christian is to risk rejection, to risk being labeled as judgmental and intolerant. I cannot help but think of Christians throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East, who are increasingly faced with the threat of losing their lives because of their very faith. These times are particularly hard. Our hope must be bolstered. As Pope Francis has said, "There are no difficulties, trials or misunderstandings to fear, provided we remain united to God as branches to the vine, provided we do not lose our friendship with Him, provided we make ever more room for Him in our lives" (cf. Pope Francis, "Homily for Holy Mass and Conferral of Sacrament of Confirmation," April 29, 2014).

Over the course of my many years as a priest, I have often been asked, "Why do we put our faith on display, since in the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, we hear Jesus instructs his disciples not to display their piety? Doesn't this directly contradict Jesus' command to 'Go to your inner room?'" (cf. Mt 6:6)

These are good questions. They propel us to examine the intention behind a public proclamation of our faith. Do we intend to call attention to our devotions? After all, Jesus laments the Pharisees' practice of publicizing their religiosity: "All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels" (cf. Mt 23:5). By drawing attention to the frequency of their religious practices, Jesus revealed that the Pharisees were seeking praise instead of directing praise to God.

Of course, we should never publically pray or perform charitable works for recognition. The reality of the ashes, however, is that they do not symbolize our saintliness. Rather, they signify our mortality, our finitude, our littleness. Yesterday we heard, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." This is a stark reminder to measure all things against the horizon of eternity, to remember that we are on a pilgrimage that is not yet completed.

My brothers and sisters, by being marked with ashes, we are given an opportunity to embrace our evangelical mission to bring others to Christ. In the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord Jesus says, "Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father" (cf. Mt 5:16) Any public sign of our faith should point others beyond the one wearing it, beyond the sign or symbol, to the reality which it signifies: God Himself.

Therefore, if what we do in Lent - prayer, fasting, and other forms of penance or almsgiving - is by chance made known to someone else, let us not be like the Pharisees and seek to be lauded. But by the same token, let us not remain silent if we are asked about our faith. Lent may very well be the season in which our friends, coworkers or family "repent and believe in the Gospel," some for the first time, others with a renewed zeal.

As Pope St. Leo the Great wrote in one of his sermons, "Dear friends, what the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the apostles may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin," (cf. Liturgy of the Hours, Hour of Readings, Thursday after Ash Wednesday). May the ashes on our forehead and Lent itself be for each one of us a time in which we remember where and to Whom we are going, and may we invite others to join us on our journey!

Follow Bishop Loverde on Twitter @Bishop_Loverde.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015