The month of February has many holidays. There’s Groundhog’s Day and Valentine’s Day; there’s Presidents Day and Mardi Gras. And there’s America’s newest religious festival day: Super Bowl Sunday. And in most years, February is the month when a very special day occurs, the official “I Didn’t Know You Were Catholic Day.” That’s right, this month millions of people throughout the country will arrive at work with a black smudge of ash on their foreheads, prompting co-workers to say, “Oh, I could’ve sworn you were Methodist.”
Ash Wednesday is the one day of the entire year when Catholics get the opportunity to let everyone know we are members of the Catholic Church. And as the ashes flake away from our foreheads, it’s the one day of the year when we get to say, “I shouldn’t have worn a white shirt!”
Actually, we Catholics have the opportunity every single day to let others know what we believe. The problem with “I Didn’t Know You Were Catholic Day,” er, I mean, Ash Wednesday, is that far too often our co-workers and friends, when seeing the ashes on our foreheads (and shirts), think to themselves, “Catholic, huh? You sure don’t act like it the other 364 days of the year.”
Of all the faith traditions around the globe, the Catholic faith most accurately understands human nature. First, we freely acknowledge that we are sinners. It’s a fact: we often mess things up royally. Unfortunately, our modern culture has lost sight of this reality, and instead encourages people to avoid taking responsibility. Nowadays, whenever anything goes wrong, we immediately try to find someone or something else to blame.
Secondly, the Catholic Church teaches repentance and forgiveness. This is so liberating. Instead of insisting that everything is always someone else’s fault, we can be honest and admit our mistakes. Then we can repent and ask for forgiveness. This is a surefire formula for being in a healthy and loving relationship both with God and with our fellow human beings.
The closer we are to God, the more His bright light of goodness exposes our shortcomings. But that’s a wonderful thing. This is why people such as Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa went to Confession at least once a week. They were so close to God’s brightness, they had to wear sunglasses at night. If holy people like that went to Confession so often, by comparison most of us should go once every, oh I don’t know, every 20 minutes!
On the other hand, the farther away we are from God, the less we see His bright light of goodness, and the less we measure ourselves against His holy standard. In the darkness, we start comparing ourselves to other people. And we can ALWAYS justify our behavior by finding someone else whose behavior is even worse. “Well, I never robbed a bank,” we say. “I never committed murder. So I’m OK. I’m sure God loves me just the way I am.”
Well, God definitely loves us. That’s a core Catholic belief. But God calls us to holiness. He doesn’t want us to stay “just the way we are.” And most likely, our friends and loved ones don’t want us to stay “just the way we are” either. They would be thrilled if we stopped being so self-centered and impatient.
This Lent, let’s really try to be more honest with ourselves, and to ask for God’s forgiveness. Then maybe next year when we walk into work with ashes on our foreheads, our co-workers won’t be surprised. But they’ll still say, “You shouldn’t have worn a white shirt.”