Come with me for a moment … back three weeks to Ash Wednesday when we began our annual Lenten Journey as a community of faith, charity and justice. In the ritual that day, there was a moment of apparent contradiction which never ceases to amuse me, and which I happily point out to my congregation year after year.

The Gospel that morning, as it always does every Ash Wednesday, ordered us to make sure that no one knows we are fasting (Matthew 6:17f), and then even commanded us to wash our faces and comb our hair. The very next bit of our Ash Wednesday ritual each year, however, is a prompt rush to have dirt solemnly rubbed into our foreheads … which we are expected to wear for the rest of the day. Talk about a clearly unambiguous signal of penitential practice.

As Catholics, and even as human beings, we are certainly not beyond occasional contradictions between community command and personal practice, but this one always seems way over the top. I shake my head as I dutifully follow the ritual.

Granted, we don’t need to advertise whatever penance we might choose each year, but my conclusion is that apparently the Gospel must have a different purpose in mind for the ashes … quite beyond proudly proclaiming our personal piety.

My contention, therefore, is that the ashes are intended each year to signal that we intend to belong to a community which promises to be different by Easter. By those ashes, we are clearly marked as members of a community dedicated to care for others, not ourselves, with freshly combed hair and newly washed faces. In reaching out to those in need beyond ourselves, we intend to embrace the ongoing mission of Jesus to the hungry, the lame, the blind and the deaf of our own contemporary world.

So here we are, three weeks into this year’s Lenten journey as a Church, called to assess whether the world in which we live and to which we are sent is any different or better than it was when we had those ashes imposed upon our foreheads? Would any casual observer be able to see any improvement in the lives of the poor in our community? Is there any evidence that we care? Or was it just another ritual which somehow got lost in our personal decision to forego candy or an extra scoop of ice cream?

In the early Church, candidates for baptism joyfully spent the final 40 days in intense preparation for Holy Saturday reception. The rest of the community, having received the transforming grace of baptism so many years earlier, attempted to regain a bit of that joy by special works of care for the poor and needy. They received ashes as a reminder to keep saying “no” to themselves and “yes” to the needs of others.

The hope is that year after year we never forget or lose the joy of Christian service to others. Halfway through Lent is a time to remember that grace. So, wash your face, but also put a dab of ashes on your forehead. They are an invitation to friends and neighbors to inquire precisely what will be different by April 21.