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…”
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