Invisible Ashes

A cross of ashes now marks your forehead. The Ash Wednesday service has concluded and you are about to leave the church. Now what? Do you go about your day with a smudged brow? Do you wipe the ashes away? My advice: outside the assembly, wear invisible ashes.

That’s not because it’s embarrassing to go about in public with ashes on your face. Don’t give any weight to that thought. So what if it’s embarrassing. Who cares what people think? But if you wash the ashes away, does that mean you are ashamed of your Lord and who you are in him? Of course not! Christ does not judge people by how they adorn themselves.

Of certain relevance, however, are the words of Jesus:

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

Public displays of piety were greatly honored in Jesus’ culture. That’s not so much the case anymore. Your ashes will mark you as weird among both irreligious and evangelicals. That fact might be one good reason to actually wear the ashes around town.

But while society as a whole won’t congratulate you on your piety, you will be likely to congratulate yourself. The ashes which signify humility before the Lord can just as easily become a point of spiritual pride. “Look how pious I am, and courageous, to be wearing these ashes in the midst of a society that doesn’t understand.”

If you deny yourself something for Lent, don’t make a point of saying so when you don’t order wine with dinner or when you can’t discuss the latest episode of a popular television program. But don’t be legalistic or prideful about your silence and secrecy, either. Neither telling others nor not telling others will automatically make you a better Christian.

Jesus wasn’t the first prophet to call God’s people to hidden piety.

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.” Joel 2:12-13

Rend your hearts and not your garments. Wear invisible ashes. In baptism, Christ marked you with a sign that no one can see, but that will never wash away. However you decide to observe the holy season of Lent, do it for God alone.

Related: Alms, Prayer and Fasting