Lent/Liturgical Seasons/My Faith

(Don’t) Look at Me!: The Art of Humility

Do you ever wonder if Jesus’ followers got confused when He spoke?

I mean, when you hear Jesus said things like “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39), do you think Peter and Andrew were a little confused but too embarrassed to admit it?

When Jesus said, “The leader is one who serves” (Luke 22:26) can’t you almost imagine St. Matthew and St. Thomas nodding in agreement but silently wondering what the Lord was talking about?

How about when Jesus said, “He who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48)? You could almost envision St. Bartholomew raising his hand and shyly saying, “Um, excuse me, Rabbi, but what the crap does that mean, exactly? You lost me.”

Jesus was the king of the supposed paradox… offering teachings and statements that appear almost self-contradictory yet turned out to be anything but. For God reminds us – frequently – that “His thoughts are not our thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8). Jesus doesn’t think like we do. Thank God for that.

It’s with this in mind that Ash Wednesday might seem paradoxical and contradictory, too. For right after we hear a Gospel telling us not to do anything outward for others to see… we have ashes smeared all over our foreheads.

How’s that for irony?

Here are a few of the lines from the Gospel we hear proclaimed on Ash Wednesday:

  • “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them…” (Matthew 6:1)
  • “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men.” (Matthew 6:2)
  • “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret…” (Matthew 6:5-6)
  • “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men… but when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face… ” (Matthew 6:16-17)

Do you see, then, how wearing ashes on our heads – this outward sign of our need for repentance – might seem to contradict what the Lord, Himself, is saying? It’s not like the Church never thought of this. So why do we do it, and what are we really saying with the ashes?

One of the things I love most about being Catholic is that we don’t pretend to be something we are not. When people utter inane and stupid clichés like “everyone in Church is a hypocrite,” all it tells me is that they’ve never actually been to Mass.

What’s the first thing we do at Mass? We acknowledge our sins! Ever said this phrase: “I confess, to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters…” ?

And then we pray for mercy: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”

We don’t gather to talk about how great we are or to revel in our sin — we gather to talk about how bad we’ve been and beg God for help to get better. In the same way, we don’t show up to Mass just for free ashes. (Although, who doesn’t love free stuff!?)

We come together to admit we have fallen, and we seek God’s grace to get up, turn around (repent), and do better (live out the Gospel more fully).

In this Gospel passage from Matthew 6, Jesus warns His followers not to be like the hypocrites who “pray” and act in ways to bring attention to themselves and create a false image of holiness. Their humility is false and false humility is true pride. In a modern context, they wouldn’t be getting ashes, they’d be asking for “halos” to show everyone how holy they thought themselves to be. Many sinners think they’re saints but all saints know they are sinners.

No, when we get ashes we are not publicly proclaiming our greatness, but God’s. We are not saying, “look at how great I am,” but “ask me about how great my God is!” The ashes are not meant to draw attention to ourselves but to the one who died for us (which is why we get a cross on our heads and not a fish or a shepherd’s staff or some other Biblical image).

It’s as though you are heading out into the streets from church and God wants to use you to draw people back to Him and to His mercy. In a way, God can even use our private sins, prayers, and journey to publicly draw others to His sacred heart.

In the end, realize that when we go to Mass, get ashes, or fast on Fridays, it is never to bring attention to ourselves but that our witness will absolutely bring attention to God. So don’t wipe those ashes off… consider yourself a work in progress, an unworthy sinner in need of a Savior and striving for sainthood. The ashes are not a sign of pride but of humility. Humbly acknowledge your sin and then seek God’s mercy, daily.

Oh and one last thought — humility is like underwear… have it but try not to show others how much you have it.

About the Author

Mark Hart

My childhood plan was to be a jedi. My teenage plan was to be on Saturday Night Live. God's plan was to have me in ministry. God won - and I'm glad He did.