Ashes serve as a visible reminder to us -- and others -- that we have sinned and must now begin again.
On Ash Wednesday, it's not hard to identify Catholics. The smudge of ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads is a solid giveaway. The interesting part, though, is that the purpose of those ashes is quite the opposite of the "Hey, look at me" message it seems to send.
In fact, the day's Gospel reading says to avoid looking as if you are fasting, to "anoint your head and wash your face." That seems contradictory, doesn't it?
As we receive our ashes, we are reminded to "turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel." Ashes serve as a visible reminder to us -- and others -- that we have sinned and must now begin again. It's kind of a spiritual do-over, and Ash Wednesday -- the starting line of Lent -- is when the work begins.
The first and second readings serve as a wake-up call for us, urging us to "return to the Lord, your God," and remember that "we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us."
Now that we are awake, today's Gospel truly instructs us how to go forth on our Lenten journey.
Matthew highlights the three pillars of Lent -- prayer, fasting and almsgiving -- and gives us a simple guide to what we should and should not be doing. He reminds the reader that "your Father who sees in secret will repay you."
Matthew lays it out very clearly and straightforward in terms of how to carry out the pillars of Lent.
He writes that when we give alms, we should "not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others," but rather, "when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret."
He provides similar advice regarding prayer and fasting. When praying we are not to "be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them."
In this age of Facebook, selfies and constant contact, it's hard to do things quietly. Or, maybe it's that people don't want or know how to do things quietly.
It seems as if all our actions are captured and instantly communicated with as wide of an audience of people as we can manage. We gauge ourselves on likes, shares, followers.
Listening to the Gospel, you would think that Matthew had a sneak peek into today's culture when he wrote it.
As the Gospel continually reminds us, our actions are seen by God and that is what truly matters. That should be enough.
So, yes, today, we will wear our ashes that tell those who see us that we are Catholic. Some Catholics may even take a selfie while wearing them.
We must remember, though, to see the ashes for what they remind us to do: Look inward and prepare ourselves. For it is only in dying to ourselves that we can begin our Lenten journey toward the resurrection.
SUSAN HINES-BRIGGER IS A COLUMNIST WITH ST. ANTHONY MESSENGER.