It always strikes me as ironic that the day of the Church year that we hear Jesus’ strong words about not practicing our piety to be seen by others is the same day when our liturgies offer us a visible mark of ashes on our foreheads to express our participation in the beginning of Lent. I don’t think it means we shouldn’t use ashes, for we are people who experience life symbolically, and the sign of the ashes can be a powerful reminder of our mortality, and our intent to turn from all that separates us from God and begin anew. They remind us too that we are part of the earth — “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”; they help ground us; they are a way into experiencing Lent more richly. In this post-Christian culture, ashes on the forehead are also a witness — a conversation starter for some, and a sign that we are followers of Jesus.
But Jesus is challenging us to look at our deeper motivations, and not just go through the motions. What are we really longing for this year? How is the Spirit moving us to pray, to share, to let things go or take things on, to grow in love for God, our neighbor and even ourselves?
How shall we keep a holy Lent?