It seems like Ash Wednesday is one of the most active days of the year for my Facebook wall. Have you noticed this? First, there are the numerous people who change their profile picture or their cover photo, announcing for the rest of us that Lent has begun. Then you have the more zealous folks who post articles and videos like “20 Creative Things to Do for Lent”, “5 Ways to Keep Your Lenten Penance,” “How to Explain Your Ashes at Work,” etc. Finally, you have the really radical ones among us who announce in some way – “BRB in 40 days – gone for Lent”,telling us heathens who remain that they will be doing holier things than Facebook for Lent.
If you've done one or more of these things, don’t feel too bad – some of the worst offenders on my wall are my priest friends, and I've even done some of them myself. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to declare to others that Lent has begun and that we’re taking it seriously. Just this afternoon, I read an online link about public people – business consultants, politicians, even ESPN television hosts – who receive their ashes today and then continue to wear them, in the workplace, on the senate floor, in front of the camera.
And is there anything wrong with all of this? No. Indeed, there’s something very right about being open and public with regard to our faith. But there is, nonetheless, an inherent danger, I think, that can creep into our attitude. And that is that we fall into the trap of showmanship, of hypocrisy, that once a year, today or even for the 40 days of Lent, we engage in the exteriors of Lent, but only the exteriors. But here’s the thing – the exteriors don’t matter at all if there’s no interior change.
This isn’t a new challenge – the people of the ancient world were subject to the same trap. For example, in Israel, in the days of the prophets and the kings, sinners would publicly cover themselves in ashes and dress in sackcloth, they’d even tear their clothes or tear out their hair, as a sign of the great distress they had at having offended God. But what does the prophet Joel say to them, and to us, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” In other words, God doesn’t want us just to make a show for him, but to really return to him and ask him for his mercy. Clearly, back then, and probably now as well, far too many were getting their ashes without accepting the call to conversion. But, again – the exteriors don’t matter at all if there’s no interior change.
In the Gospel today, Jesus speaks to us about the three traditional penitential practices that are associated with this season – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. But notice how he does it – he doesn’t say, “You know, disciples, you should give alms, or pray or fast like those people over there.” No, he says, “Don’t be like the hypocrites”. Don’t fall into the trap of doing good things, things which can bring us closer to God, without also having the interior sense of conversion that should go along with them. Giving money to the poor and the needy, trying to better orient ourselves by spending more time in prayer, even fasting from food and drink or whatever thing we might like – those are great things. But, again – the exteriors don’t matter at all if there’s no interior change.
So, what are we to do? Well, I suggest one thing that may sound easy but is far harder than any exterior penance we might adopt – and that is kindness. This Lent, in addition to giving up chocolate, or television after supper, or even *gasp* Facebook, take on as well kindness. Real kindness, exterior and interior. The kind of kindness that leads you to stop complaining at work about your boss, but that also prompts you to think well of him or her interiorly as well. The kind of kindness that leads you to stop nagging your husband or to be more appreciative of your wife, but that also leads you to go out of your way to serve him, or her, out of love. The kind of kindness that leads you to not just repent for having harmed that family member or that friend, but that spurs you on to reconnect with them and ask their forgiveness. All of us, young or old, with family or not, whatever our circumstances in life – all of us can find one person this Lent who really tests our kindness, and then we can go out of our way to love them.
My friends, so as we begin this season of Lent once again, at the end of Mass, we’ll come forward to receive our ashes. And we’ll exit the church with that sign of our faith on our foreheads. But remember, the exteriors won’t matter at all if there’s no interior change. So whatever we may be giving up for Lent – great, keep at it – but don’t forget about your hearts.Because no matter what we put on our heads, or in our mouths, or even on our Facebook pages, it’s what in our hearts that really matters to God.