It’s Wednesday. Your alarm goes off 90 minutes earlier than normal. Struggling to wake up, you remember: You need that time for Mass.
Hours later, you absentmindedly touch your forehead. Grayness marks your fingertips. You remember your own mortality.
You continue about your daily tasks. You stomach rumbles – lightly, but enough so you can’t ignore it. You remember your sacrifice – a sacrifice echoed by Jesus for 40 days and nights.
Devout Catholics realize that the physical and spiritual are not two separate entities. It’s all but impossible to compartmentalize the needs and feelings of our souls from the sensations of our bodies . . . and it’s probably foolhardy to try.
All of today’s readings reflect on and inform Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. Today is the day when we perhaps most starkly merge the realms of body and soul in service of the larger idea of repentance.
The Gospel selection from Matthew touches on the importance of this co-mingling of our dualities. Jesus warns, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.”
He notes, “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you . . .”
He proclaims, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting.”
In other words, the purpose of the physical acts — fasting, giving alms, performing righteous deeds, even praying – is not solely the physical act itself; the spiritual aspect is more important.
Do the spiritual aspects of your life exist solely in a compartmentalized way? Do you drive to Church on Sunday, sit for your hour, and then resume what you consider to be your “real” life? Do you say grace before a meal as a mechanical rote, mumbling through the syllables? (Do you say grace before meals at all?)
Or do you allow the physical to connect with the spiritual? When you’re thinking of what to eat on Fridays, do you think, “We could have hamburgers for dinner tonight . . . Oh, wait. It’s Friday. Jesus sacrificed his flesh on Good Friday, so the least we can do is abstain from flesh in a similar way”? When you see and smell incense at Mass, do you just see it as smoke, or are you envisioning it as our prayers drifting up to heaven? If you make the sign of the cross with holy water when you go to Mass, what are you thinking as you do so? Are you reflecting on the goodness of your own baptism, or thinking to yourself, “Gotta find a seat in the pew; I hope the kids are still behind me. Did I remember the collection envelope”?
Of course, it’s all-but-impossible to completely wall off the demands of the physical world when connecting with the spiritual. If your children get lost at church before Mass, that’s a problem! But it may also be a problem if you have a hard time leaving the concerns of the physical world for a moment, even amid the most spiritual of surroundings.
No matter what stage you’re at along your journey, Ash Wednesday is the perfect place to reflect and begin anew. It’s a reminder that – regardless of anything else – our physical journeys all end in an identical way: in dust. And that physical journey is finite – barely over a century at most. Yet the fate of our spiritual lives is much more in question, on a timeline that extends to infinity.
Today, then, marks the perfect opportunity to renew – or begin anew – the connection between our bodies and souls. The ash on your forehead isn’t just a smudge of dirt waiting for your next shower; it’s a reminder of what’s at stake. The hunger you feel today isn’t just a physical one, but a spiritual one as your spirit longs to get closer to God. It’s the perfect season to remember the Lord in small ways and great.