Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
What does the Lord want from us? He wants now what He has always wanted: the sacrifice of our contrite hearts. Keep the burnt offerings, the bulls and rams, the incense and flowers. He wants your heart, split open, artfully arranged, freshly washed and anointed; your heart repentant, rueful, intensely sorry, and wounded by love. He wants your clean heart and mind placed on the altar, freely given, offered up in praise, turned forever to His will for you. God wants your fasting, your weeping, your mourning; He also wants your feasting, your laughter, your joy. He wants a heart rent top to bottom in true sorrow for your sins, so rend your garments if you must, but know that torn garments, smudgy foreheads, and dour faces, though signs of a proper contrition, are not contrition in themselves. It is better to be truly contrite and happy about it than to be faking contrition and hiding behind public displays of piety!
Playing at religion is a very dangerous thing, brothers and sisters. God wants our hearts and minds; He wants us to return to Him whole and entire. Do you think He can’t see through the layers of religiousy junk we sometimes slathered over our miserly souls? Do you think He can’t smell the failure of our public piety, or the rank odor of desperation in that good work we did to curry favor before Lent? Jesus himself could not be clearer than he is this morning: give alms in secret so that only the Father knows you give; pray in secret so that the Father may properly repay your trust; fast privately without being gloomy, without neglecting your appearance; anoint your head and WASH YOUR FACE! Do you think the Lord is going to smile on your grand sacrifice of walking around with ashes smudged on your forehead today? Tell me what a great witness that is and I’ll tell you to do it everyday!
Here’s your proper public Catholic witness on Ash Wednesday: first, wash your face in all humility and resist the Devil’s temptation to strut around as a “Proud Catholic.” Then look to the Lord in the desert. He goes out from the crowds. Away and into the desert. He withdraws to be with His Father. And finds himself confronted by the Devil and his lies. With what would you confront the Devil in the desert? How would you repel his seductions and deflect his temptations? Jesus is God. You aren’t. Would you fight Satan with false piety? Theatrical religiosity? Would you ward him off with some sort of amulet or spell? Let me suggest that there is no fight with the Devil when one’s heart is truly contrite, filled with grace, given over wholly to the Father as a sacrifice of praise, and lifted up on the altar.
Why am I being so hard on the public witness of piety? I know from personal experience the seduction of believing that I am accomplishing something good for God by playing at being religious. Jesus is also worried about us and how easy it is for us to confuse show and substance. This is an acceptable time for us to be truly reconciled with God, but that reconciliation is done through a heart and soul converted to God’s law of love not a smudge of ashes or a much-discussed fast or a grand gesture of almsgiving. If your day to day life at work or school or the office fails to give a faithful witness to God, then a dot of dust or an unusual bag of carrot sticks for lunch won’t change minds. In fact, more than anything, without a daily witness of true service that dot of dust says, “I’ve decided to trot out my religion today for your consumption. Isn’t it cool?”
Yea. That’s what Jesus died for. Cool. Fortunately, we have forty days to figure this out. Forty days to live intensely in the presence of the Lord. Forty days to sit at his feet and learn humility. Forty days to learn to be happy and purged, joyful and emptied. Forty days to cleave our contrite hearts, stoke the fires of sacrifice and offer our very selves to him. So, wash your face and clean your heart.