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Lauren Winner, author of several popular books on spirituality, writes in the Washington Post about the essentially public nature of Ash Wednesday: “This is a rare day when I cannot and could not hide my Christian commitments and my Christian aspirations, even if I wanted to.”

As she notes, this must be utterly unlike Pharisaical boasting or fasting “with a sad countenance,” and we must be vigilant about sliding into this temptation. Nevertheless:

Repentance has a public aspect and a private aspect. Jesus speaks very clearly about doing one’s repentance in secret — not chattering on in public about how hungry your pious fasting has left you. At the same time, the church also has a ministry to call — publicly — for repentance, to sometimes play the role of John the Baptist. Calls for repentance happen every week, every day, inside religious buildings, inside religious communities. Sometimes calls for repentance need to happen out on the street corners, too.

[ . . . ] I would add that there is something about Ash Wednesday — the day the church sets aside for people to acknowledge, before God and one another, our mortality, our finitude and our moral failings — that suggests taking this particular liturgical action into the streets (besides following, as it does, the public revelry of Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday). We are going into public with our ashes because Jesus died in public.

That discomfiting call to conversion, especially when carried away from the pulpit into the streets—is today often subject to suspicion, derision, or hostility. But it’s an integral part of the faith, one at the root of the unavoidable personal and cultural claims Christianity makes. The kind of “offense” these reminders of our mortality give is precisely the point.

Though some of Winner’s other points may be overstated (why does its public element imply Ash Wednesday belongs “out of the church” entirely?), the piece is, on the whole, well worth a read for its on-target deconstruction of the public/private split this day of the liturgical year so unsubtly reminds us is false.

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