Anyone who received the Lenten ashes today will know the supreme irony of that action.
In today’s Gospel, which is the Gospel on every Ash Wednesday, our Lord counsels the very opposite:
When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
Moments later, we dutifully queue up to receive the ashes on our heads. Here we are, beginning a forty day fast not in secret, but with a loud declaration.
I take two lessons from this. The first evokes a great scene at the end of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
Aslan is not a tame lion, and Jesus is not a predictable teacher whom the disciple can easily pin down. Any Christian who thinks they have figured the Lord out, that they can serve him and please him without much effort, is mistaken.
We won’t find all the answers to life’s questions there in black and white, not even in the Bible. And we can’t reduce the truth and wisdom of our Christian faith to creeds and formulae. To be a faithful disciple, we have to pray. We have to speak to the Lord and constantly learn from him. He has to become an intimate friend. And like all friends, Jesus will often surprise you.
I think wearing ashes on our heads, in direct contradiction to the instructions the Lord has just give us, is a good reminder that Christian discipleship is a constant struggle. We will never follow him perfectly. We’ll never figure him out completely. Aslan is not a tame lion.
The second lesson follows from the first. We’re all hypocrites. We might appear to follow Christ externally, but sometimes internally we’re not following him at all. On Ash Wednesday we invert that. We appear to contradict the Lord’s advice, while interiorly we resolve to worship him and fast and do penance privately. Secretly. Cheerfully.
On Ash Wednesday we assume the appearance of hypocrites. Jesus himself calls us out. And it’s not just appearance. It’s all true. You’re a hypocrite!
It’s good for us to acknowledge the fact — not so that we can glory in it, but so that we know ourselves and see ourselves as God sees us. The more we do that, the more dependent we become on grace. We will beg God to convert us, not from the outside in, but from the inside out.