Ashtag, Smashtag

The Ash Wednesday selfie debate is on again.  Here’s a take on it from my homily today:

It has become popular in recent years for people to post their Ash Wednesday “selfies” on social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This year even the U.S. Bishops have gotten into the act, encouraging people to post their photos with hashtag “ashtag.” 50 lucky winners among them will also receive a book of Lenten reflections by the Church fathers as a reward. If you think this is all rather silly, you’re not the only one.

Indeed, the very idea of the Ash Wednesday selfies has sparked some debate among Catholics. Some arguing that it violates the spirit of Ash Wednesday and penance itself, which we are not meant to be boastful about. Others argue the opposite, saying that this is a great way for people to witness to their faith, showing their friends and followers that it is something important to them. Others say “lighten up” it’s just harmless fun. But some bristle at this since, of course, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, which is not supposed to be fun.

Fortunately, we can look to today’s readings for guidance in this matter. In the Gospel, Jesus says not to perform righteous deeds so that other people can see them. Don’t look gloomy, pray in secret, and when you give alms, “don’t blow a trumpet before you.” The first reading from the book of Joel warns earlier that a day of darkness and doom is coming. It urges the people of God to return to God with fasting, weeping, and mourning, rending our hearts, not our garments. “Blow the trumpet in Zion!”, it continues. “Proclaim a fast, call an assembly, gather the people.” Let’s make sure that others can’t say of us, “Where is their God?” But, hold on, wait a minute. Maybe the readings aren’t as helpful as we imagined they might be. Jesus says “don’t blow a trumpet.” Joel says “blow the trumpet.” So, today, are we meant to blow our own horns, or not? Well, let’s not deny the obvious. Today, we’re going to spend the day walking around with ashes on our forehead, drawing attention to ourselves. That would seem to many like blowing a trumpet. Especially here in the largely non-Catholic South, where more than one person might kindly point out that we have some sort of smudge on our head. I must admit that when I lived in South Carolina, I found Ash Wednesday to be quite fun, for this very reason. It might cause the other person a bit of embarrassment, but it also gave me an opportunity to tell them what it was all about.

And, for me, the second reading tells us what it’s all about. Think about what Saint Paul is saying about us, reminding us: “We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” “Working together, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” This is both the call we are meant to answer, but also who we are meant to be for others: God appeals to others through us. God uses us to bring his mercy to others. And, working together, we can show others the grace of God offered to them. To do so, we certainly shouldn’t boast about the things asked of us specially during this season of Lent: Our prayer, fasting and giving to those in need. We should seek God’s mercy and be Christians always, and not just when others are looking. That is the extreme that Jesus warns us against. But we also must take care not to be so secretive or self-effacing in doing these things that people fail to see that at the root of all that we do is our faith and commitment to God. People should see us and say “there is their God,” not “where is their God?”, that’s the extreme the prophet Joel is warning against.

Let our ashes today, then, and those special sacrifices and commitments we make this Lent show us to be sinners, who need the love and mercy of God; servants, who are confident that God will give us his love and mercy not in return for what we do, but freely; and ambassadors who, having experienced God’s love and mercy can offer the same to those who are most in need of it. There are plenty of people out there who will tell you what Lent should or shouldn’t be, and who will give you advice about what you should or shouldn’t do. But, consider as you pray, fast and give: how is God calling me to receive and give his mercy this Lenten season? How will your Easter “selfie” compare to your Ash Wednesday “ashtag”?