And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest anoint thy head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father who is in secret. (Mtt 6:16-18)


Every Ash Wednesday this instruction of Our Lord is read from the Gospel of St Matthew. At the same Mass the whole congregation kneels at the altar rail to receive the ashen crosses on the forehead that will show to the world outside that the Church’s season of fasting and penance has begun in earnest.

This is the sort of apparent contradiction that can cause a fundamentalist Protestant to choke on his muesli with indignation. Even Catholics sometimes ask whether it would not be more in keeping with evangelical stricture to wipe the ashes away from their brows before going out from the church.

So why does the Church impose this striking external sign of penance, in spite of what might seem to be Our Lord’s admonition to the contrary?

If we look at the Old Testament, we see that exterior signs of penitence can in fact be beneficial and pleasing to God. In the Book of Jonas, God has passed a sentence of destruction on Nineveh in retribution for the sins of its inhabitants. In response to Jonas’ hellfire preaching, a severe fast is proclaimed. Every man and beast in the realm is clothed in sackcloth, including the King who sits on a pile of ashes. The result: “God saw their works, that they were turned from their evil way: and God had mercy with regard to the evil which he had said that he would do to them, and he did it not.” On this occasion, sackcloth and ashes seem to have done the trick.

The problem with the hypocrites whom Our Lord upbraids is that their extravagant religiosity is just an act. They wear miserable dirty faces as a badge of moral superiority, while behind the façade their souls are blackened with jealousy and pride. What counts with God is a humble and contrite heart. He sees that the repentance of the Ninevites is genuine. They are sorry for their sins and want to do better. The sackcloth and ashes correspond to an interior disposition. 

“Remember man that thou are dust and unto dust thou shalt return”. These are the words that traditionally accompany the liturgical imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. They signify that Lent is a period of mortification or putting to death.

In Baptism we were united to the death of Our Lord on the Cross. No sooner had we descended with Him into the grave, however, than we emerged from the waters of regeneration overflowing with the Life of His Resurrection. In a sense the baptismal font is a tomb in which we are buried with Christ. But it is also the womb in which we are reborn into the life of grace.

For the Baptised Christian, our earthly existence becomes a constant process of dying so that we may enjoy our new life in Christ in its fullness. We must keep dying to sin and self-centredness, so that the supernatural Risen Life might take greater possession of our hearts and souls. In the Sacrifice of the Mass we unite ourselves with Our Lord’s Passion and Death, and then we receive His Risen Living Body in Holy Communion.

The ashes that we receive on our foreheads are a sign that we intend to die to ourselves with greater intensity in Lent. Whatever penances we impose on ourselves must be a symbol of our intention to put to death all pride, jealousy and greed. This is so that the life of grace, which manifests itself in charity, humility and purity may flourish. Without charity, our acts of penance are grotesque. In Lent, therefore, the Church enjoins us not only to fasting, but also to almsgiving and/or good works, as well as to prayer.

As a sacramental, the ashes on our foreheads also confer grace when received with devotion. We should pray that through them we will be given the supernatural assistance we all need to keep Lent well, dying to ourselves each day so that when Easter comes we are well-prepared to share joy of the Resurrection.

Fasting and penance have an essential part to play in our sanctification. When Easter arrives, however, it is unlikely that we shall have gained many spiritual brownie points for inches shed around the waist. What will really matter is that we are more loving, more generous of soul, more detached from the vanities of this world.

Saint Philip Neri, the Father of the Oratory and the Apostle of Joy, led a life of marked personal austerity. He slept very little, and his preferred diet consisted of a few olives and bits of bread. Amongst the saint’s effects kept in his rooms at the Chiesa Nuova are a spiked metal vest and severe-looking discipline for mortifying the flesh in accordance with the ascetic customs of his time.

In St Philip’s mind, however, mortification of the intellect was far more effective than any physical penances. Holding his hand to his forehead, he would say “sanctity lies within the space of three fingers.” This counsellor of popes, who could hold his own with the humanist philosophers of the day, was never happier than we he was taken for a simpleton. If his own penitents asked his permission to wear a hair shirt, he was likely to tell them to wear it on the outside of their clothes, so that they too might be taken for fools.

Last year the Bishops of England and Wales restored the time-honoured precept of abstinence from meat on Fridays. For most of us, foregoing meat for a day is probably not much of a sacrifice in the physical sense. It can however mortify our vanity when it causes us embarrassment on social occasions. Uniting as Catholics in a visible token of penance in obedience to the successors of the Apostles also has real value as a witness to the Faith in our secularist society.

If, on Ash Wednesday, we find ourselves wondering whether to keep the ashen crosses on our heads or to wipe them off, we can apply a simple rule. If we are eccentric enough to imagine that a dirty smudge on the forehead gives us an air of spiritual excellence, perhaps we should remove it. If this sign of Our Lord’s Passion and Death makes us feel awkward, then we should leave the ashes in place for all to see, and be glad to be taken for simpletons for the love of God.