On Ash Wednesday, many churches read from the Gospel Jesus’s warning against hypocrisy: “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others…And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting” (Matthew 6:5).
Yet, many Christians come out of the woodworks on Ash Wednesday to get an ashen cross drawn across their foreheads, then go on hiatus until Easter or Christmas. Regular churchgoers, too, do not often feel that their daily lives reflect the divine mission to which they have been called. The ash crosses serve only to point out to others our imperfect faith, and at the same time to blot the name of Christ with all our sins and shortcomings. What makes someone worthy to bear this somber mark on their forehead? What distinguishes us deficient Christians from the pharisaical hypocrites whom Jesus reprimanded?
As it happens, each person who wears Ash Wednesday’s cross is a sinner, and equally incapable of dealing with his own sin without God’s grace. For those of us who feel unworthy of it, the cross forces us to come to terms with our hypocrisy. We bear the cross even when we do not feel worthy, because in that conviction of sin we share in Christ’s burden. We who feel inadequate to associate ourselves with Christ practice coming to terms with our helplessness.
The added beauty of this sign is that even those who do not recognize their hypocrisy have the possibility of growth. They acquaint themselves with the feeling of sin. They get used to carrying on themselves the sign of the cross, so that when they are called upon to take the real cross of Jesus’ suffering on themselves, they may be ready.
The cross on Ash Wednesday really serves a dual purpose: for one, it reminds us of our transgressions against God. It also convicts us of our hypocrisy, showing us that we are not even worthy to bear the same cross that Jesus did, to suffer the same punishment as the Lord of the universe.
Granted, many Christians do not have a special Ash Wednesday service, or even observe Lent at all. Even so, the Christian life is like always walking around with an ashen cross on our foreheads. Our affiliation with Christ marks us out inevitably as hypocrites. We try to bear our faith with pride, but more often it is simply proof of our lack of faith.
Psalm 51 gives a prescription applicable to all Christians: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” In this way, signs of our failure and our helplessness are miraculously efficacious for spiritual growth. Unlike success, which tempts the righteous person and gives pride to the sinner, evidence of failure—of our inner ashen cross—is both a chance for repentance and a means of sanctification.
Bryce McDonald ’21 is a junior in Leverett House studying Classics and Philosophy.