Monday, February 8, 2016

When ashes are deliberately smeared on our foreheads once a year.

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. 


  1. Dear Father Luke,
    A happy Chinese New Year to you. I always have a "battle" with the Lord to understand what a significant of the Lent during a celebration of the Chinese New Year. Finally, I come to my conclusion, a year to celebrate my previous spiritual growth and also that I failed to bare fruits for the Lord.
    A 40 days of reflection to begin a 2016 before I make a foolish mistakes again and again to advance my spiritual growth. It is a reminder that the time on earth is short and we need to be back to our Abba Father with our spiritual fruits that He has given to us with trust.

    With God blessing,

  2. I feel that the imposition of ashes on our foreheads together with these words – ‘you are dust and unto dust you shall return’ is a very powerful and symbolic act because it speaks the language of the heart or rather, the language of the soul?

    Coupled with the liturgical readings of St Paul to the Corinthians that I find disturbingly moving – “ is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation.” opens me to a descent into Mystery – to a deep sense of loss and grief – for the wrong choices and actions taken, the sins of omission, the hardness of heart? And sitting amidst these ashes and embers of false and shattered dreams – the quiet realization (like you said)............. that we are “constantly in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness”

    Throughout the mass, when we look at one another and see the crosses marked on our foreheads we have a sense of a ‘shared commonality that levels rank and status” – especially when we see our priests marked likewise. “The ashes on our foreheads remind us that no one is exempt.” – is so true!

    However, it is also a beautiful moment of hope and joy as there is a realization that we have been much loved for we are given a chance at a new beginning (starting with Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Season) ......a chance to allow the grace of God to help us walk closer with the Lord – a chance for a slow but sure and silent growth from within.

    These forty “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.”

    Thank you for providing much food for thought.

    God bless u, Fr