Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ash Wednesday

As a Protestant, I always viewed Ash Wednesday as an odd day. It wasn't until my post-college years that I really came to understand the meaning behind it, and who exactly celebrates it. In the past year, I have fervently studied Catholicism. There are many unique practices, and the Lenton season is certainly one of them.

For those of us non-Catholics, the Lenton Season (more commonly referred to as Lent) begins with Ash Wednesday. Lent is the forty days prior to Easter, in which the faithful make personal sacrifices in order to glorify Christ - in remembrance of Christ's forty-day desert fasting. Those who observe Ash Wednesday go to Mass and receive a blessing of ashes on their forehead. A small amount of ash is placed on the priest's finger, who in turn makes a tiny "sign of the cross" on the recipient's forehead. Sometimes the mark looks like a cross, but more-often it looks like a dash or a blob. The ash signifies forgiveness of sin, which without Christ, invokes death. The priest will say "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."

For the remainder of the day, the faithful walk around with ash on their forehead. For them, they are making a personl commitment as a way of glorifying Christ. My only qualms about the practice of Lent is with some of those who observe it. You see, most of the faithful receive their ashes and begin their Lenton journey toward Easter. They make personal sacrifices, giving up a food they obsess about or an activity that tempts sinfullness. As they should, they properly observe the private practices of Lent. However, there are those who make it social hour, asking their friends, buddies, online chatmates, and anyone else within earshot "What are you giving up for Lent?"

I laugh a little inside every time I hear that...every year. I sigh a little, too. I understand their fervor and passion for what they believe in. Being blessed is always a joyful feeling. And fellowship with other believers is like a taste of Heaven. However, Christ didn't mince words when he spoke of how we should practice out faith:

Matthew 6:1-8
1Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 5"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

The whole 6th chapter of Matthew is one of my all-time favorites. It helps greatly with humility, and verse 9 begins the Our Father prayer. Christ saw the "religious" around him and how they lived out there faith, as if it was a spectator sport! The problem with acts of righteousness is that we tend to desire recognition and validation from other believers. We're all makes us feel good when someone acknowledges that we are going above and beyond for Christ. If we are not careful, however, it in itself becomes sinful. Our Father does not reward boastfullness. He rewards secret adoration. So the next time you do something AWESOME for our God and you feel that urge to shout it from the rooftops...stop, take a moment, and let His be the only ear you bend.

Faithful (noun) - church members in full communion and good standing.