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Why Do We Wear Ashes if the Gospel Says Not to Put Our Faith on Display?


A listener named Sara asks about the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading that states we should not put our faith on display, and wonders how that connects with wearing ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

Father Dave agrees that the Gospel reading does seem ironic as we put our faith on display with ashes. He provides some context. “The reading is chosen from Matthew chapter six [when] Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them. Otherwise you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father … Jesus goes on to say to ‘pray in secret.’ Primarily the reason why that is selected is because three distinct paragraphs in the reading are the three main practices that we undertake during the 40 or so days of Lent, and that is prayer, fasting and almsgiving.”

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“His entire crowd would have been very familiar with all three of these practices because they are constituent a life of faith of the people of Jesus’ time,” Father Dave explains. “Matthew chapter six; it’s the Sermon on the Mount. And in that Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is trying to overcome a lot of the bad habits and bad practices that had been accumulated for thousands of years, and he’s doing that in a very stark way. He’s saying, this is what you think, but I tell you this. One of the examples he uses is, ‘You’ve learned that murder is wrong. I tell you that even if you hate your brother in your heart, you’ve committed murder.’ He’s trying to get us to wrap our heads around not just being legalists and to realize that hate is bad and hate is sinful. But he’s not saying that every civil court and authority should now arrest people and throw them in jail for hating. We can’t take everything literally.”

Father Dave explains that Jesus is using rhetorical devices like hyperbole all throughout the Sermon on the Mount that we have to take in their proper context. 

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“Matthew is writing almost exclusively to Jewish converts to what we now call Christianity. They didn’t have the ‘brand’ called Christianity by the time Matthew is writing, but he’s primarily writing to Jews and one of his main purposes (you can see this throughout his Gospel) is taking everything that Jews had learned, everything that they had read that had been revealed by God thousands of years before, and say, see, this fits. He’s connecting the dots.” 

Father Dave suggests that it all comes down to our intentions when interpreting this reading and applying it to our lives. “When you get the Ash on your forehead and you walk out the door, if you are hoping, ‘Boy, I hope everybody sees and assumes I am very religious.’ Well, that’s what Jesus is talking about.”