Ash Wednesday always seems like a contradiction to me. On the one hand, as a Christian, joyful in the spirit, I appreciate and honor Our Lord’s words of wisdom: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance so they may appear to others to be fasting…But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden…” (Matthew 6:16-18)
On the other hand, on Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and abstinence, I get a big schmudge of ashes on my forehead that scream, “It’s Ash Wednesday, and I’m fasting!!!”
I think about this contradiction, too, throughout life with chronic illness, especially one that is invisible. That quick “Oh, I’m fine, thanks, how are you?” when, in reality, health is not fine. Or the heavy make-up or clothing that can cover up the evidence of an illness’ signs and symptoms. The outward appearance and the inward truth can sometimes seem in such contrast. Sometimes, when someone says, “Oh, but you look fine! You can’t be sick,” it’s tempting to say, “You don’t want to know what it looks like inside.” But I, personally, don’t like to wear my pain.
In much the same way that some people prefer to give donations to charities anonymously, following Jesus’ guideline for appearance while fasting creates a powerful relationship between the person fasting or giving and God, who knows all, seen and unseen. It’s another way to be in the world, but not of it, to receive grace from God instead of kudos from humans.
Yes, I still get schmudged on Ash Wednesday. But fairly soon afterward, I wash off the external sign of a Lenten beginning and start the good, deep work developing faith within.
Blessings for the day,