'When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.'
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday: and the first day of Lent. Many Christians, Orthodox and non-Orthdox alike, will be familiar with the ceremony of the imposition of ashes which has become customary on that day. This comes to us directly from the custom of the dismissal, in former times, of those who were excommunicate for one reason or another, and were serving a time of penitence before being received back into the full communion of the Church. Eventually, it became customary to impose the ashes on the heads of all who presented themselves.
Indirectly, this custom comes to us from Scripture, where numerous times in the Old Testament, we see reference to dust and ashes thrown upon the head as a sign of mourning, penitence, and a reminder of human mortality. (Job 2:12; Joshua 7:6; Lamentations 2:10; Ezekiel 27:30, among others).
Yet the Saviour warns us in quite clear terms not to disfigure our faces in order for our piety to be seen by others. This certainly ought to make us at least think about the widespread custom of being seen with a dark smudge or Cross on our faces, and how wee see this in light of this Gospel, particular in places where the ash is mixed with oil for the specific purposes of giving it a darker, more noticeable hue, and causing it to stay in place for longer.
Yet surely it cannot be that this has never occurred to anybody before. Surely others have heard the excerpts from St Matthew's Gospel and wondered how to interpret them in light of the liturgical practice that they have always known of priests deliberately placing a visible and sometimes lasting mark on the faces of the people.
It is curious that all of those Old Testament references make mention of the dust and ash being specifically thrown upon the head. There is no mention of making a mark on the face.
Similarly, the rubrics of the service books make no mention of making a visible facial mark in ash but state simply that the ash shall be placed on the head. The relevant rubric in the Sarum Missal simply says:
Afterwards the ashes shall be distributed on the heads of the clergy and laity by the higher dignitaries, making the sign of the Cross with the ashes...
The precise manner of how the ashes are to be distributed is not specified and it seems perfectly possible to me that this is the case because it was simply assumed that clergy would know how to do it.
Here is a missal woodcut that depicts the same thing, (sadly I do not know its provenance):
It was only a few years ago that I learnt that it is mainly in our anglophone world that the Cross on the face is as widespread as it is, and that in the Latin church, in many European countries, the custom is for the dry ashes to be sprinkled over the inclined head of the penitent in the form of a Cross, which is then barely, if at all, noticeable to anybody. Could it be that this is the more ancient custom, and what is intended by the rubrics?
Below we see the sprinkling form of the imposition of ashes employed in the cases of two recent popes.
What is important is the action of the imposition of the ashes and its significance to the penitent: a sorrow for sins and the attitude and mindset that pledges repentance and amendment of life; a conversion of heart. There is no need for a lasting mark on the face intended to be seen by the world. Let our lasting mark be the visible fruit that we bear and that others see in our lives.
'Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see a friend being honoured, do not envy him. Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin. Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful... Let the ear fast... by not listening to evil talk and gossip... Let the mouth fast from the foul words and unjust criticism. For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?'
On the one occasion that I experienced Ash Wednesday liturgically in an Orthodox context (in ROCOR), the ashes were imposed using the visible-Cross-on-forehead method. However, I must say that am inclined to prefer what seems to be the more ancient custom, and I would ask our clergy to consider whether it might be worth adopting this practice.
At a time when we can encounter such things as street corner and drive-thru ashings, and when it is difficult to look at our Facebook feeds at the start of Lent without seeing increasing numbers of Ash-Wednesday "smudge" selfies, perhaps the focus in how this day is presented to the people of God ought to be less on the physical mark and more prevalently on internalising within our hearts the meaning of the Lenten fast, allowing our passions to be subdued, and our hearts imbued with the grace of God, so that they may spring forth in genuine love for ourselves and our neighbours, for the sake of our salvation.
Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’