I attended Mass today and received ashes on my forehead. Every year on Ash Wednesday, we hear the gospel reading telling us not to advertise when we fast, pray, etc. but rather to keep those activities private. So it has seemed hypocritical to me to hear this lesson on the day that we are advertising to the world that we have been to church this Wednesday, as we walk around with black crosses or smudges on our foreheads.
Today I decided to look up some answers and after a little research online, learned that the crosses on our heads are not meant to advertise that we went to Mass because we are any holier than anyone else but rather as an evangelizing tool. Some of the answers that I found suggest that at the very least, someone who sees the cross on my head today will realize that I went to Mass and might think, for a moment, about going to church. Whether it brings a smile to some or makes others cringe, for a split second, some stranger will associate the mark on my face with church or with God.
Others will just wonder how I left the house without noticing that I have something on my face. I learned this well during the last few years in Kansas. I attended Ash Wednesday Mass and then went to the grocery store. Each time, at least two well-meaning people tried to discreetly tell me that I had something on my face. I should have used this as a "teachable moment" and explained that it was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a good time to think about God. Instead, I usually just nodded.
Today, I went to Target with the kids after school. Most people we passed just smiled. I don't know if they were embarrassed for me or if they recognized the black cross on my head. (Perhaps walking through the store with two kids in Catholic school uniforms, also wearing ashes on their heads, gave them a hint). I had even almost forgotten that I looked odd today until after checking out when the woman walking by us elbowed her mother in the ribs, then pointed at my head, at which point both women stopped and stared. Rather than pretending to not see them while I shooed my children out the door, I should have used this as a moment to teach them.