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Daily Reflections for Lent

Keyword: ash wednesday
Ash Wednesday
Dr. David McCarthy
Professor of Theology
Be Careful What You Wish For
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them…”
Matthew 6:1
Those who give alms “to win the praise of others… have received their reward” (Matt 6:2). This instruction is perfectly suited for Ash Wednesday, but it is also confusing.

Ashes are a sign of public penance; yet, just before we are marked with them, we are directed: “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting…. and your Father… will repay you” (6:17-18). So, do we keep the ashes upon our heads all day? Or should we wash them off?
I have asked myself these questions many times, for many years. But they are the wrong questions. My mistake has been in thinking of the reward and recompense as something quite different than the ashes—as external to the mark of vulnerability. My incorrect view comes down to: do X (be contrite and do not show off) and get Y (good marks with God). Ironically, this approach turns out to be prideful: “look God at how good I am.”
In contrast, the point of Jesus’ teaching (as usual) is much more realistic about how life works: we get what we wish for. If we wear our ashes in order to be seen and praised by others, then good for us, that is what we will get. If we wear our ashes to mark our frailty and to break down our everyday desires to score points by being good, then by the grace of God, that is what we will get: we will be opened to God’s goodness and mercy.
On Ash Wednesday, we see the eyes of those around us move up to our
foreheads. And as they do, repeatedly, we have to decide what we want from those ashes: God’s grace or our achievements. Be careful what you wish for.

Gracious God, we wish and hope to be marked for you. Amen.

Jl 2:12-18 Ps 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 and 17      2 Cor 5:20—6:2 Mt 6:1-6, 16-18

Fr. Brian Nolan


"Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of redemption."
2 Cor. 6:2


Some years ago I was visiting my four and five years old nephews in northern Virginia who loved running races with one another. Any person could say, "race to the tree and back" or "race around the back yard" followed by the words, "Ready…Set…" and they would immediately stop what they were doing and face the direction of the race. When you said, "Go" they would take off running full throttle doing anything to beat the other in the race.


Although the goal of the spiritual life is not to out-run our neighbor, it is a call to "run the race" (1 Cor. 9:24). Lent is a time of spiritual preparation that is both universal (all Catholics are called to participate) and personal (each person runs it differently, at their own pace and speed).


As Christians we should always be "ready and set," but Ash Wednesday is a call to "go" and begin a forty-day preparation for deepening our love for God and our neighbor. Every Catholic is called to grow in all three practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Prayer is growing in our love for Jesus Christ through spending some extended daily time with Him, at least 15-20 minutes. Fasting is making a sacrifice of food or tempering a love for things or activities - other loves - to make more room for the love of God within us. Almsgiving or charity is growing in our love for our neighbor in concrete ways.


On Ash Wednesday, the clock has started, time has begun. Don't be left behind, but enter into the forty-day race of growing more intentionally and intensively in the spiritual life. "Now is the time, now is the day." (2 Cor. 6:2) Don't wait. Ready…Set…Go.


Jl 2: 12-18, Ps 51: 3-6, 12-14, 17, 2 Cor 5: 20 -6: 2; Mt 6: 1-6, 16-18


Dear Lord, help me to run the good race this Lent, and the rest of my life. Amen.

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