There are many rituals that we have in the Catholic Church which may seem strange or even bizarre to the uninitiated. Looking from the outside, some of these rituals can perhaps come off looking a tad peculiar and almost anomalous to anything that proclaims to be rational and sound. One of these may be the imposition of ashes on our foreheads once a year, when the liturgical season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.
The very action of accepting with a willingness to have our faces smeared and smudged with dirt militates against all that the human person does and ensures to have an appearance that is pleasant and presentable to the world. As a priest who has presided over this rite and have marred the visage of so many of my parishioners over the years each Ash Wednesday, it never fails to make me ponder over the significance of this action. After the last parishioner walks back to the pew, and after I have washed my hands and turn to face the entire congregation, I am always a little startled and astounded to see each face looking at me, with a face carrying a blot of dirt. Every person, baptized or not, young or old, geriatric or infant gets to come up to receive this smudge on their foreheads during this Mass. It has a meaning that goes deep. Symbolically, it reminds each one present that no matter what rank, status, title or background, we all share a commonality that we hardly care to acknowledge, but when we do, will go a long way towards our spiritual maturity. It is the revelation that beneath all the fanciness that we use to cover up our shared inadequacies and insufficiencies, we are all made of dust, as we remember that ‘we are dust, and unto dust we shall return’.
It makes me call to mind something that a Japanese Catholic priest I got to know many years ago shared with me about his culture. Many of you readers may know about this, as I am sure you are well travelled and some have been to Japan to experience this firsthand. I am referring to the ‘Onsen culture’ so prevalent in the Land of the Rising Sun.
In Japan, the prevalence of public baths is well known. From big cities to rustic and charming villages near natural and picturesque thermal hot springs, the Japanese people love these baths. And one thing that no outsider or visitor is spared or given exception is that one has to go into these baths with not a stitch of clothing on. Most of these, apparently, have specific areas for male and female bathing. And the Japanese will willingly tell you that once in the baths, without a stitch on to hide behind or to give any false sense of superiority or rank to another human being, all persons are the same. One could be a garbage collector and be seated in a large hot tub next to a high court judge or the chief of police, or even the Mayor of the city, but there is a shared commonality that levels rank and status.
If nudity achieves this, my reflection is that so does the placing of ashes on the faces of every person at the Ash Wednesday liturgy. It makes it crystal clear that every person in the church, including the presiding priest in the sanctuary, is a sinner who is constantly in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. At the heart of it all, each person, in big and small ways, has a predilection to pander to his or her own egos and selfish desires on so many levels, and it is a reminder to all that as a community, as a Church and as a people of God, we need to at least once a year to sit in those ashes to jolt us back to reality that we are really as good as our undiscovered sins due to our make-up and an outward appearance that shields our fragility.
The entering into the 40 days of Lent is not a time of maudlin melancholy either. It is not a pity-party that starts right after Mardi Gras and ends when the Gloria bells are rung at the Holy Thursday Mass. These days of penitence and simple living are really a retreat at a community level, a going-back to re-appreciate how our sins had given us the only chance of ever regaining entry into heaven through the passion and saving action of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. As in wartime, retreats are times of reorganization and re-energizing to be enabled to make further advances later on. So too does the season of Lent energize us for our constant battle with sin and evil.
Indeed, the Easter promise of the resurrection was, and is always going to be ours to share and enjoy, but it is also something that we must never take for granted either. Lent readjusts our points of focus in life for all of us. The ashes on our foreheads remind us that no one is exempt. As St Paul said, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Lent is a time of returning to humble beginnings and perhaps a reminder that for most of us, we may have been wearing too much make-up.