Many people, some Catholics included, have no idea why we walk around on Ash Wednesday with dirty black smudges on our foreheads. First, it’s not a smudge. It’s a cross drawn with ash. However, some of the people who administer the ashes are a little better artists than others. Either way, it gets the job done.
Second, the ashes represent our mortality and are an outward sign of our sinfulness. But why would anyone want to be reminded of this? Perhaps because it’s true. We are indeed mortal – we are dust, and to dust we shall return (Gen 3:19). We are sinful too. And in a world that constantly says “if it feels good, do it” and suggests that a guilty conscience is just one more thing that we need a prescription for, we definitely need this healthy dose of reality.
There is something much more important that must go along with this, though. It always helps to put everything we do in the Church in context with the most important event – the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which we celebrate on Easter.
In this case, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, which is preparation for Easter. And real preparation for Easter isn’t done with a couple more prayers, and a resolution to eat less chocolate. It’s done in your soul.
When we look in the mirror on Ash Wednesday and see that black smudge on our forehead, we should be reminded that, no matter what, we are still sinners in need of constant conversion. It is the Church calling us back once again to the graces of our baptism, to do penance, and amend our lives as we approach the greatest celebration in the Church – Easter.
So don’t wear your ashes proudly, but make sure you wear them, and as the Gospel for the day will remind us: wear them humbly.