Every day, each of us, before going to school or to work, makes an effort to look our best. We shower, shave, put on make-up and fix our hair so that others will see us at our best. We want to make a good first impression. We want people to think the best of us and to like us.
So what sense does it make for us to come hear today and put ashes on our forehead?
What we are telling our God and ourselves by this gesture of smearing ashes on our foreheads is that we recognize that despite all our efforts to look our best, we are at our core sinners. Despite our best efforts, we lie and gossip. We are sometimes jealous and petty. Though we try to keep all that hidden from others so that they will think we are "nice", we recognize that we cannot keep it hidden from God. He sees us as we really are.
There is something more to this gesture, however, than feeling badly about ourselves. Rather we are expressing faith in the God who loves us despite our sins and failings. We live our lives with a suspicion that if people knew what we really thought and how we really felt, they would stop liking us. And so, we are always hiding behind a mask of polite talk and good manners. But God knows who we really are. He reads the thoughts that we keep hidden from others. He sees what we do behind closed doors. And he loves us anyway. He sees our sins and offers to forgive us anyway.
Throughout his life, Jesus was keenly aware that people were not always what they seemed. He was able to see hypocrisy in the hearts of those who seemed to be good and goodness in the hearts of tax collectors and prostitutes. All of them needed to change. All of us need to change.
That is why Jesus insists that we are to do our good works in secret. He knows how much we need the approval of others. He knows how easy it is for us to use religion and good works as a way of making ourselves look good rather than as a way of growing closer to our heavenly Father.
Today we are beginning the season of Lent - forty days of penance in preparation for the great feast of Easter. Along with not eating meat on Friday, we will each make some sacrifice during this time. It has been an ancient tradition of the Church that we give something up during Lent as a sign of our desire to change. Our sacrifice, however, has to be something more than an exercise of will power if it is to be pleasing to God. Otherwise, it can have the effect not of humbling us before our heavenly Father but of making us even more proud so that we say to God, "Look what I was able to do!" Instead, our sacrifice must have the effect of helping us to recognize that we are sinners in the eyes of God and yet loved just the same. Our sacrifice must have the effect of helping us to say "no" to our tendencies to lie, to gossip and to hurt others and "yes" to our desire to love others, to serve others and to forgive others.
Today is a new beginning for us. As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading, "This is the acceptable time. This is the day of salvation." No matter how we may have sinned in the past, God is giving us yet another opportunity to turn to him and renew our friendship with him.
When we receive ashes on our foreheads today, let us keep this in mind. God knows us as we really are and loves us just the same. We can only please him by humbly accepting his love and pledging to do whatever it takes to live as he commands. If we do this in the secret of our heart, then the God who sees what is hidden will shower us with his grace and love as we journey to the feast of the resurrection of Jesus.