I never cease to be amazed at how many people come to church for ashes. Because I go to Mass very early in the morning, and because I walk to work, Ash Wednesday always makes for an interesting commute. I tend to forget the ashes are there on my forehead and invariably I'll hear more than once "Oh, I didn't know today was Ash Wednesday. Thanks for reminding me, I'll have to get my ashes." Usually, I'm so caught off guard that I don't have more of a response than "oh, ok." Today, however, today was - different.
I made my best effort to evangelize. When a woman noticed my ashes and asked "oh, is today Ash Wednesday ALREADY?" I laughed and said "now, if you went to Mass more often, you would KNOW that today is Ash Wednesday, but that's ok. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Go get your ashes, Jesus will be very happy to see you in church." OK, so maybe she thought I was crazy, but I had to give it a shot. This evening, Vespers was slightly interrupted by a lot of shuffling and whispering in the chapel. As soon as Benediction had concluded, a woman approached one of the friars and asked him when ashes would be distributed. "As soon as we can find a Catholic priest", he joked. Meanwhile, one of the other friars generously went off to get the ashes from the sacristy. I often wonder if priests find it discouraging to see so many people on one day and then hardly again, but the reaction of that friar in dashing off to get the ashes tells me otherwise. I would have been tempted to tell her to come back at the appropriate time. How charitable is that? Not very!
I love the Gospel read on Ash Wednesday, but how I wish the entire chapter was read on this day that sees so many fallen away Catholics return to church, for reasons known only to them. How many of those who came today don't bother to come on Sundays because Mass isn't important to them? How many don't come because God just isn't a priority? How many are too busy acquiring possessions and playing with those possessions to care about their spiritual well-being? How many came today for appearances sake? How many have not been raised well in the faith but with a little encouragement, might undergo convesion? Did I do all I could to make all of them feel welcome so that they might want to come back soon? I certainly hope so!
There is so much here in St. Matthew's Gospel and it is so fitting that we hear it at the start of Lent.
The Gospel according St. Matthew, Chapter 6
1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
16 Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
17 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;
18 That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.
19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
22 The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.
23 But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
24 No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
25 Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
26 Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?
27 Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
28 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
29 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
31 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
32 (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.
33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
34 Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.