“I think you have something on your forehead.” That sentence runs through my mind around this time in March every year. It usually happens over lunch, between classes, or at the library. I’ll see a Catholic friend, notice a grey smudge on their forehead, and barely catch myself before flinging the sentence into the air between us. Then I suddenly remember. Ah, it’s Ash Wednesday.

Repentance ashes have always struck me with a vague sense of awe, even admiration, since I was little. Growing up in the Protestant Church, I never talked about Lent at home. Ashes were something my Catholic friends did–something mysterious, a little off-putting, and all the more cool for how silly the other kids thought they looked. Ashes, to me, were the insignia of an exclusive club, a secret society even better than Dumbledore’s Army because it was real and had something to do with God.

I still find Ashes inspiring, though for somewhat different reasons than I did as a clean-foreheaded Protestant kid. When I see my friends wearing a visible commitment to Christ in the Yard and around the Square, I get goosebumps. I think of Paul refusing to feel shame because of the Gospel of Christ. I admire their willingness to declare their identity in God, and I feel a renewed sense of solidarity with the people around me who share my faith in Christ.

Symbols like repentance ashes are powerful. But today’s readings remind us that, like all things, these visible signs of faith have their place–and their limits.

The psalmist writes that the Lord delights not in burnt sacrifices, but in broken and contrite hearts (Psalm 51:16-7). Matthew warns against making a show of giving alms, praying on street-corners, and turning our piety into a way of impressing others (Matthew 6:1-6). Embracing the visible symbols and services of our faith are important, but what these passages point out is that outward signs can easily become less reverence for the Lord than distractions, idols, and alters to ourselves. So how do we find the balance between signs and shows of faith?

I think the answer lies in prioritizing the invisible parts of our faith, and letting the outward signs of that faith follow as they will. We can’t see broken spirits and contrite hearts. Other people can’t watch us pray behind closed doors. We don’t wear our relationship with Jesus Christ on our foreheads.

But if we follow Christ’s example in these invisible parts of our walk with God, the fruits of that faith walk will become visible. We will serve, give, talk about Christ with others, and treat people in noticeably different ways from the rest of the world because we simply can’t help it–because the invisible well of Life inside us bubbles over in visible streams all around us. And if our signs and symbols spring from a relationship with Christ, we don’t have to worry about their becoming corrupted ways of glorying ourselves.

As we begin this Lenten Season, I encourage us to think of ways that we can wear ashes on our foreheads for the next forty days, for the next forty months, the next forty years–ashes that aren’t always visible grey crosses on our foreheads, but invisible acts of faith that ripen our lives into visible signs of Christ.  

Lauren Spohn ’20 is a junior in Currier studying English