Wednesday, February 22, 2012

To Wash or to Remain a Sign

A few years ago, I don't remember where, a big discussion broke out over the issue of whether to leave the ashes on your forehead or to wipe them off after Mass.

A few admitted to wiping the ashes off out of embarrassment of what co-workers or others might think or something, but most who advocated wiping them off pointed to that part of the Gospel, which happens to be part of the reading for Ash Wednesday 2012, where Jesus says,
"Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father . . .
"When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you." (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18)
So, from this, it would seem that those who wash their faces before going out in public have the better of the argument.

But the other side argued that the ashes should remain because they were not merely a momentary symbol, but a liturgical action, and they further reasoned that it would be wrong to wipe the ashes off because, to the extent that people worried what the outside public might think, to remove the ashes was tantamount to denying Jesus, remembering what He said, "whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father." (Mt 10:33)

So who is right? Each position has its merits. But with respect to the first argument about doing good and praying secretly and going out in public with a clean face, in order to properly interpret that passage, it is important not to read it in isolation (as unfortunately we do as a reading at Mass).

One rule of scriptural interpretation is to read passages in context, in the context of the surrounding text and the Bible as a whole. Well, this particular passage is from Matthew chapter 6, and is part of the Sermon on the Mount. And just a few verses earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, in chapter 5, we hear Jesus say,
"You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father." (Mt. 5:14-15)
Thus, reading the above passage (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18) in context, since Jesus just finished telling us to let others see our good deeds, to set a good example to others, it would seem that the better interpretation of His words to not do certain things in public is that Jesus is talking about self-aggrandizement, of doing good not for the sake of doing good, but only so others will see you doing good so that they might think more highly of you, rather than thinking more highly of God.

So, if you are one of those prone to taking pride in your humility, saying "hey everyone, look at me, look how humble I am with these ashes, look at what a good Catholic I am," it would probably be best to either change that attitude quick, or go ahead and wash the ashes off, else they become a temptation to prideful sin.

But if you can remember the day, remember in all sincerity and humility that "you are dust and unto dust you shall return," then go ahead, leave the ashes on so as to be a witness of Jesus to the world. Let them see in you a reminder of Him. Not for your benefit, so that they will think better of you, but for their benefit and for the greater glory of God.

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