Today Lent begins with the sign of ashes -- a communal sign of repentance. All over the world Catholics receive the sign of ashes on their foreheads as a sign that they are ready to do penance.
By its very nature it is a public matter. We don't roll up our sleeves to receive them and then cover them up like we would do when we receive an injection. No, we receive them on our foreheads where nobody can fail to notice.
Nor are the ashes blessed to be taken away and used in private like water that blessed at Easter. Ashes are blessed to be placed on peoples' foreheads there and then. We are not meant to bring them home and wear them in private where nobody can see us. They are meant to be seen in public.
Of course, you might think that today's readings seem to say the opposite. After all they seem to condemn any kind of public show. The prophet Joel tells us:
Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn.
And in Matthew's gospel, Jesus asks his disciples
not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice.
But really there is no contradiction. This is no fragrant anointing. Ashes are dirty. They are meant to be a sign of sincere repentance. The contradiction only arises within us who receive them. The gospel tells us how we should receive them.
As members of the Church, our Lenten repentance is never simply a private matter. We do not journey through Lent in isolation from others. Lenten observance is not so much something I do, but rather it is something we do together. We are called to repentance as a people.
Receiving ashes with other Catholics is a sign that all of us need God's forgiveness and grace. In humility we share that with others. The sight of so many others wearing this sign of repentance should be an encouragement to us to make a real effort to renew our Christian lives.
Moreover, as we see others wearing ashes we should remember that in part we are responsible for them and to them. The way we live our lives - the things we do or say and also the things we neglect to do or say - can be a good or a bad influence on others.
We go to God with our brothers and sisters. From the moment of baptism right through to receiving viaticum, God's grace and presence is mediated through others. We should give thanks for our companions. We are never alone.
Traditionally, the special effort Catholics make in Lent involves some form of self-denial. Alternatively, it could involve prayer or almsgiving, both of which can include giving something up. Any form of self-denial is always a kind of statement. It is like saying that something is wrong with the way things are. It is a refusal to be content with the present situation.
Lent begins with the realisation that we ourselves ought to change and the hope that by God's grace we will. In this sense, Lent always looks to future. Whatever we do for Lent, whether we decide to go without something or spend more time in prayer, or help those in need, we must do so in the humble and sincere acknowledgement that things could be better with each of us and between us and our brothers and sisters, as we ask God's help for the future.
In the gospels, Jesus was asked why his disciples did't fast like other Jews, he declared that the time of waiting was over, that the Bridegroom had come. The kingdom of God is at hand. As our common journey to Easter, Lent is about rediscovering the kingdom within ourselves both as individuals and as a community.
Even if we've been around too long to really identify with a bride and her groom - and perhaps we feel more like the husband or wife who has taken his or her partner for granted for far too long, or has neglected or even has been unfaithful to that person - the call of Lent is to rediscover and build up the kingdom within each of us and among our brothers and sisters in Christ, starting today.