(Joel 2:12-18; II Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6.16-18)
For a number of years now Protestants have taken up the custom of imposing ashes. Certainly not all Protestants, but those from the mainline churches – Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans – are not unlikely to be seen wearing this Lenten sign. There is no reason for Catholics to be jealous. It is, after all, a sign of sinfulness, which is prevalent in the churched as well as the unchurched. But all who wear ashes need be concerned that they are duly determined to change their sinful ways.
There is a story about a man who gave eulogies at funerals. For a fee the eulogizer would make up something nice to say about the dead. At one funeral he said that a scoundrel was an honest man who treated everyone fairly. The people reacted to what was being said with indignation. But it was not the lies that upset them, but that they admired the scoundrel for his wickedness! They did not want to think of him as having reformed or, at one time of his life as acting virtuously. Wearing ashes today with no intention to move from sinfulness to righteous ways is like admiring the scoundrel for his wickedness.
By wearing ashes we promise to change our ways. They are not a sign that shows that we are Catholics or even Christians. They are a sign of shame like the student who brings home a report card with straight D’s. As the student will pledge to her parents that she will make every effort to raise her grades next term so should we work to expunge sins from our lives.