Repent and believe in the Gospel. It is with these words that the priest exhorted us this morning as he placed ashes upon our heads. What is this Gospel that we are to believe in, and why do we have ashes placed on our heads when today’s Gospel seems to prohibit such external signs?
‘Gospel’ is one translation of the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον. It can also be translated as ‘good news.’ This isn’t just any good news, though. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) εὐαγγέλιον is used to denote the message of victory sent from the battlefield back to the people. This meaning is retained in its use in the New Testament. The good news is that Christ is victorious in His battle against sin and death. Jesus can set us free, free from our enslavement to sin and the tyranny of the devil. But for this victory to take place in us we must turn away from sin (repent) and believe in salvation through Jesus Christ (the gospel).
But why do we have ashes placed upon our head? Doesn’t today’s Gospel reading from Matthew tell us not to use such outward signs?
Blessed ashes are a sacramental, and thus are sacred signs instituted by the Church which prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it. They remind the faithful of death but they also remind us of Christ’s victory over death when placed in the shape of a cross. They mark the bearer as a sinner, as one who is guilty but also repentant and whose hope is in Christ.
In today’s Gospel Jesus warns his disciples to “be on guard against performing religious acts for people to see,” and, specifically, for people to praise. This warning does not prohibit visible religious acts, such as the wearing of ashes, but rather condemns the ulterior motive of one who does so to receive human praise. The gospel warns us not to receive ashes today in order that those around us will think that we are a good Catholic, or holy, or observing the prescribed fast, or for any such reason. We are to wear ashes with humility and reverence, contemplating on our own sinfulness and God’s limitless mercy. This practice helps us to prepare to observe Lent fruitfully.
Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the Lord, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.