Ash Wednesday is the day when we wear our error on our brow. The ashes declare to the world, “I’m wrong. It was me.”
With the ashes, we put our hands in the air and admit that it’s our fault. You ask, “What’s wrong with the world?” With the ashes we say, “I am. It’s me. Look no further. I take the blame.”
Have you ever stopped to think that Christianity is the only religion in which the first step is to say, “I’m wrong?” The first message that comes from Jesus at the front end of the Gospel is: “Repent!”
Before you can do anything else in the Christian life, you have to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It can’t just be routine. It can’t be just words from a liturgy out of a book. It has to be from the heart.
This first stepping stone of the spiritual life is vitally important. This is because self-righteousness is the constant threat for the religious person. We are wired to think we are right. We are wired to seek the right answer, the correct solution and the best behavior.
As soon as we think we are right, self-righteousness starts to creep in, and when self-righteousness creeps in, we begin drifting away from God and from others into our own sweet cocoon of righteousness. For followers of Jesus Christ, as soon as we think we’re right, we’re wrong, and it is only as we admit that we’re wrong that we’re right.
The poet E.E. Cummings has a delightful line that expresses this paradox. In the poem “May my heart always be open to little birds,” he writes:
may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple;
and even if it’s sunday, may i be wrong,
for whenever men are right, they are not young.
That he should not care about being right “even on a Sunday” pictures a heart of joyful repentance.
Of course, this is not to say that doctrine and dogma do not matter. It is simply saying that an open soul that is aware of its own human frailty and failure is better than the soul that is closed in its own righteousness and superiority.
We put ashes on our heads as a sign of our contrition, but it is wise to remember that the Gospel readings for the day encourage us to wash our faces and be joyful while fasting. This is not only to avoid parading our piety, but also because repentance is meant to be a joyful exercise.
Think of all the burdens you can lay down as you truly say, “I’m wrong!” You no longer have to defend yourself all the time. How exhausting it is to be right all the time! How frustrating it is for others if you are right all the time! That’s not the way to win friends and influence people! What a relief it is to lay down the burden of being right. What a joy it is to be wrong!
There is a darker side to being right all the time. It poisons our relationships with others. It works like this: If you are right all the time, but the world is still in a mess, then it must be somebody’s fault, and if it’s not your fault (because you’re right all the time), then it must be somebody else’s fault.
This is why self-righteous people always, always, always find someone else to blame. For them, it is always somebody else’s fault. This is why they must always find a scapegoat. By blaming someone else, they give their own righteousness another super boost. “I thank God that I am not like that sinner!” we say, and, immediately, we get a sugar rush of self-righteousness.
The self-righteous person says, “It’s the Republicans’ fault. It’s the Democrats’ fault. It’s black people. It’s white people. It’s the fault of the poor. It’s the fault of the rich. It’s the fault of the Jews. It’s the fault of the Christians. It’s the fault of the atheists. It’s the fault of the theists. It’s the fault of the young. It’s the fault of the old. It’s the fault of Protestants. It’s the fault of Catholics.”
Self-righteousness is endemic in our society. The human race is riddled through with this sick disease called self-righteousness.
It is this type of blaming of others that causes the tidal wave of evil in the world. It leads to jealousy, spite, revenge, murder and war. The self-righteous person blames someone else, and the logic leads inevitably to the realization that the other guilty person or parties must be destroyed. Self-righteousness is like a hideous hidden disease in the human race. Sugared over with smiles, piety and apparent goodness, it worms its way into our world like the ancient serpent that spawned it.
But as soon as we truly repent, we pull the rug out from under self-righteousness. The second half of the fundamental Christian action is to have faith in Christ. As the ashes are imposed, we say, “Repent, and believe the Gospel.”
The first step is to admit we are wrong. The second step is to accept Christ is right. After we take the blame, we realize that he took all the blame. We may be wrong, but in him, we are right. Only as we are in him and he in us in faith do we become righteous.
So we should wear our ashes with a kind of joyful abandon this Ash Wednesday. Let us wear them like a gray badge of courage. They are not the mark of the beast, but the mark of the best; for only the best can say, “I am the worst,” and only when we conjoin ourselves with Christ the Righteous can we take the steps towards our ultimate destiny — to become one with the righteousness of God himself.
Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.
His latest book is Slubgrip Instructs: Fifty Days With the Devil.