“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6: 16-18)
So Jesus tells us not to disfigure our faces when we begin a fast? Gosh. It always amuses me slightly as we begin the holy season of Lent that this verse is read every year—just as we are doing exactly the opposite of what it indicates. In the Ash Wednesday mass we purposely disfigure our faces! All day long on this solemn holy day people are walking around with black smudges on their foreheads, proudly displaying to God and everyone that they are nothing but dust and are journeying on their way to the grave. We conspicuously broadcast this ancient symbol of both contrition and sorrow.
I guess we could be like the prophet Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 24: 15-27) who obeys God’s command to refrain from signs of mourning. God tells the old boy to look sharp and not advertise the grief he feels over the death of his wife. He has to suck it up and not ask for comfort as an example to all the people of Israel. They are expected to do the same, even though their holy city is destroyed and they are carried off as exiles to a foreign land. They don’t get to weep or show signs of bereavement. This is their punishment for unfaithfulness and apostasy.
But I guess it doesn’t matter whether they rip their garments or put ashes on their heads. The pain is still going to be there. The regret, the guilt, the isolation—none of that goes away. The ashes are always present even if they are invisible. Yet, all the same, on this sacred day we wear the ashes, the symbol of that most terrifying truth—we are helpless.
I recently read Elaine Pagles’ touching memoir, Why Religion?[i] In this poignant book the Princeton University professor of religious history tells of how her son, Mark, was diagnosed with a rare and invariably fatal pulmonary disorder. She walks the reader through the excruciating knowledge that her little boy will never live to see adulthood, and later through the stages of grief when Mark died at the age of six. As if the loss of a child were not enough sorrow, Pagels’ husband was killed in a hiking accident 15 months after their son’s death. Like Job, Pagels found herself sitting in her own spiritual ash pit asking why? Her double tragedy convinced her that she would rather feel guilt than helplessness; nevertheless, she came to the conclusion that it is pointless to look for meaning in the face of such pain. We must ultimately create meaning out of it.
On this day we wear our grief and shame and solitude on the outside. Ash Wednesday is the day for truth-telling, for acknowledging that we are all confused, all wounded, all filled with regret. But we also put our pain in the shape of a cross, the reminder that our Father who sees in secret has sent his Son to live that pain with us. We take meaning from the thought that Jesus on the cross knew and felt and understood and acknowledged everything we are going through. And we can look to the crosses on the foreheads of our neighbors and realize that we are not really alone at all, and that in the spirit of humility and compassion, Jesus has come to sit beside us.
[i] For more information on this wonderful book, go to https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/after-her-son-and-husband-died-elaine-pagels-wondered-why-religion-survives/2018/11/06/83e2fb24-e1da-11e8-8f5f-a55347f48762_story.html