The season of Lent calls us to penitence and repentance. The acts of penitence and repentance require that we acknowledge our wrongdoings, show remorse for our wrong doings, turn away from our wrongdoings, and turn towards God. The goal of penitence is not to think that we are terrible people and to beat ourselves up. It’s to take a very hard, realistic look at our lives, to not gloss over our sins, to not gloss over those things which we ought not to have done or those things we failed to do. Penitence means reflecting upon what aspects of our lives need to be improved in order live more in line with how we believe God would have us live.
Deciding what to do with the ashes on our foreheads after an Ash Wednesday service requires this kind of personal reflection. What are our motivations for wanting to keep the cross on all day, or wanting to wipe it away immediately after the service is over? Are you at least a bit convinced to come to an Ash Wednesday service so people will see the ashes on your forehead and think you’re a good Christian? If that’s the case, then do what Jesus commands in the Gospels and keep the service personal—when you leave the church, wipe the cross off of your forehead. However, if you tend to be embarrassed about your faith and are hesitant to share Christ with others due to a feeling of shame, then keep the cross on your forehead until it naturally fades away. Jesus did not just say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others.” He said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” We must discern our own motivations for what we are doing. And only we ourselves and God can truly know our motivations.
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