"And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)One of my students asked a very good question in light of this passage:
In the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, Christ warns us of changing our outward appearance whenever we fast [see verses above] in order to gain recognition for our religious commitments. Why then do we [Catholics] contradict this by placing ashes on our faces for the whole world to see?Two answers: First, if you’re proud of your ashes, wash them off. If you’re embarrassed of your ashes, leave them on. Second, it’s worth noting that in Europe, ashes are placed on the top of the head or at the hairline so that they are not noticed. In America, however, we have the ostentatious practice of placing the ashes on our foreheads.