Ash Wednesday: Humility, Accountability, Solidarity
Today’s Gospel reading offers us a clear challenge.
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6: 1-6).
During the season of Lent, we are called to renew our relationship with God through prayer and fasting while reaching out to others in service and charity. We are called to empty ourselves so as to have more to offer others. And, as we are told in this Gospel, we are to do so in a spirit of humility – not putting our good deeds or prayerfulness on display, but acting in secret.
For me, the great irony of this morning’s Mass was that immediately after hearing this Gospel call to humility, we all walked up to the altar to receive a visible sign of this calling. As I go about my workday, I will be marked as different from the norm. I may receive a few stares and questions from students unfamiliar with this Catholic ritual. Indeed, I will stand out – which, on the surface, seems to be the exact opposite of what today’s Gospel is calling me to do.
A few months ago I took the Via Character Survey, a questionnaire that seeks to give its subjects insight into their various strengths and virtues. (You should try it – it’s fun!) The survey tests for twenty-four different strengths, such as curiosity, kindness, bravery, humor, fairness and prudence. When I took the test, I was surprised to discover that the lowest ranked quality on my list was humility. Repeating the survey a few months later, I received the same sobering result. Honestly, I was initially quite surprised. How could this be? I don’t think most people who know me would describe me as an arrogant person a la Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, or Dr. Frankenstein. When people give me criticism, that is not the issue that usually stands out. However, the beauty of this particular test is that it assesses not our outward actions so much as our internal attitudes toward ourselves. From a young age, guided by my parents and teachers in a Catholic setting, I learned to cultivate the appearance of humility. But now, I have come to understand that for years I was displaying a false modesty that actually concealed a deeply rooted arrogance.
So, how does one grow into a spirit of genuine humility? I honestly am not sure, but I have a hunch that the answer lies in the seeming contradiction between today’s Gospel and the ritual that immediately ensues. By marking ourselves with ashes, we make ourselves accountable for our actions. As I walk around my campus today, I’ll be sending a message to my students and colleagues: “Today is the first day of Lent, a penitential time which I plan to observe. Hold me to it.” I am also reaching out in solidarity with all the other people who are seeking to renew their faith and grow in virtue during these six weeks.
In this way, while Ash Wednesday may initially seem like the very kind of public display that Jesus condemns, a deeper reflection reveals that it is not. By being marked with ashes, we can resist our own hypocrisy by inviting others to observe whether we are actually living what we claim to believe. And we can also grow in solidarity with one another, recognizing that while the journey may feel lonely at times, we are truly never alone.