“We are sinners!” That is what a black, thumb-smudge of ashes smeared squarely on our foreheads proclaims. We begin Lent with the acknowledgment that we are sinners because it is only from this posture of penitence and honesty, both with ourselves and with God, that we recognize that we need Easter. We need the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter because we cannot save ourselves from ourselves.
Last year several diocese and even the US Conference of Catholic Bishops asked for #AshWednesday and #MyAshes selfies to be shared on social media as a way to evangelize Lent. I thought this was brilliant. How often have you missed a holy day of obligation because you did not realize it was a holy day? This hashtag was a creative way to remind the world that many Christians were entering into a penitential period of preparation for the Resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, wearing ashes is an invitation to the world to share in the Gospel promise.
I was a little disappointed, though not surprised, to see some articles criticizing those posting about #AshWednesday. Their argument was that these ash selfies were self-promoting and conflicted with the penitential nature of Ash Wednesday. I disagree entirely. Ashes are God-promoting! I think the critics of the AshTag are seeing the self-promoting selfie and missing the declaration contained in the picture, “I am a sinner. I need God’s forgiveness.”
Wearing ashes is contrary to our nature. When you walk around on Ash Wednesday, do you feel proud of your ashes, or do you feel a little sheepish? I always feel sheepish. I feel sheepish not only because I have a big black smear on my face, but because I am admitting publicly that “in choosing to do wrong and failing to do good,” I have sinned through my own free will. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to self-promote my awesomeness and ignore my sinfulness. Wearing ashes, especially in public, goes against my nature.
Pope Francis published an Apostolic Exhortation (a churchy way to say “a letter to his flock”) a few years ago called Evangelii Gaudium, or in English, “The Joy of the Gospel.” In the letter, Pope Francis makes this invitation:
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since ‘no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.’
The Holy Father expands that the way to begin a personal encounter with Jesus, or to become open to encountering Jesus, is to pray:
Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.
This prayer is exactly what we are praying on Ash Wednesday when we, individually, and as the Church, stand before the priest and have ashes imposed on our foreheads. Through wearing ashes, we share with the world that we have sinned and that we are seeking to renew our relationship with God because we need God.
By walking around with ashes on your face or hashtaging a selfie of your ashes, you are sharing – or evangelizing – that God invites all of us again and again to come into relationship despite our own sinfulness. Everyone can be forgiven. That is a message worth sharing in-person, in print, through social media, and through hashtags and selfies.
“Evangelism Through Ashes” contributed by Elizabeth Tomlin.