Each year I continue to be amused by what I perceive as a radical contradiction between the Gospel of Ash Wednesday and the ritual for which the day is famous among Catholics.

The Gospel passage, as we may recall, cites Jesus offering serious criticism of those who make sure that everyone knows they are fasting, and admonishing his disciples to wash their faces and comb (literally “anoint”) their hair lest people note that they are fasting and they receive “reward” from the admiration of their neighbors (Mt 6:16-18).

Simple enough! The problem stems from the fact that our Ash Wednesday liturgy immediately follows that Gospel with the blessing of ashes and (often) the liberal distribution of ashes … so that everyone walks out of the church with the telltale sign of a dirty forehead announcing the beginning of Lenten penance and fasting! Talk about a public proclamation!

Every year, I ask myself, even if with a grin of amusement, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Every year I conclude that the visible smudge of the blessed ashes, therefore, is not a proud proclamation of our Lenten penances, but rather a public, personal signal that we belong to a church community which will be different by Easter.
Such an explanation seems to make more sense … but also imposes a lot more pressure on each recipient. After all, Lent is intended to be a community event, and changing an entire community is a more daunting task that reworking an individual.

But here we are, already some two weeks into Lent 2016, and forced to consider the impact and perseverance of our Lenten resolutions thus far, whatever they may have been.

The bold, initial promises have often already been fudged, some even faded from memory as a result of the pressure of work and the burden of the cares we bear each day.

It’s time to take a second look at the resolutions, and either reconfirm them or adjust them to something more manageable. It may even be time to make some course corrections.

Losing a few pounds may be a good and healthy thing for us, but it is not of itself a door to the Lenten experience of making the church a clearer sign of God at work. The deeper question is: “What must/can I do to make sure that our parish will be different by Easter?”

Better yet, “What should I be doing to make sure that the personal dying and rising which was initiated by my baptism xx number of years ago continues to shape the life of my parish community?”

A truly Catholic Lent is intended to be somehow a social experience, not merely private and personal.

So I guess my penance, whatever it may be this year, ought to make the Sunday Eucharist more effective, the reputation of the parish more attractive and fellow parishioners more worthy of imitation.

Regularly visiting the parish’s sick and homebound (because “that’s what we do at St. Mary’s”), giving an aging spouse a breather from long hours of daily care for a husband with Alzheimer’s (because “that’s what we do at Holy Trinity”) or bringing food to a large family with very limited resources (because “that’s what we do at St John’s”) would seem far closer to the target than giving up desserts.

It’s a big stretch from the dessert menu to making the community a better place by Easter, but a necessary one.
Giving up candy can leave us just as crabby or judgmental as ever come Easter (maybe even more so!), but walking in someone else’s shoes and experiencing their burdens might really make me think differently about them … and metanoia, literally “thinking outside one’s mind,” is really the goal of Lent … which could make the entire parish a different experience for fellow members.

Standing in line at a meal program, listening to the conversation among the guests at table and then helping the volunteers with the daily clean-up might change a lot within our own views. Thinking differently is really what Lent is supposed to be all about.

I’ll see you at Easter, and I hope we all look different — not simply slimmer — when the day comes!