A mom once told me that her four-year-old came home from school on Ash Wednesday with ashes on his forehead. When she asked, “Who gave them to you?” he said, “God.” “And what did God look like?” she asked. “Well, he wore a purple dress and had white hair,” the boy responded. Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday are said to be the two days most Catholics go to church— because they get something.
The tradition of being marked with a cross on Ash Wednesday is longstanding. (Remember how in the book of Jonah even the livestock wore ashes as a sign they repented?) In the old days, ashes on Ash Wednesday was a reminder that we will die someday, so we better shape up during Lent. Today the person administering the ashes is likely to say, “Go and be faithful to the Gospel.” We are sent to witness to the Gospel, and all those who are marked with the black cross (or smudge) are witnessing to their faith in Jesus. Some people wash the mark off right away. My friend, who is a clerk in a supermarket, dared to keep hers on at work. She wasn’t sure if it was an infraction of the dress code or not. Her boss said nothing about it. But the people who came through her aisle did. Whenever someone asked about the mark on her forehead, she had an opportunity to share her faith.
Of course, outward signs like ashes are not the important thing. Jesus scolded the Pharisees for the wide phylacteries on their foreheads and their long tassels. Why? Because their actions contradicted what they purportedly stood for. How great it would be if we attracted attention not because of our ashes, crucifixes, religious tattoos, or veils, but because of our good deeds, our kindness, our generosity, our bravery. Those of us who are not so much Gospel (good news) people as bad news now have six weeks to work on a complete makeover.
What can you do this Lent to witness to Jesus by your actions?