Should you wipe your forehead before going into work on Ash Wednesday?

Should you wipe your forehead before going into work on Ash Wednesday? February 8, 2015

“The Good News is now Old News.” So said my preacher at church last Sunday.

That could be expanded to say, “The Good News has become Old News in the workplace.”

When people talk about religion and spirituality in the workplace, they are mostly talking about overt acts of piety, such as Catholics and other Christians coming to work on Ash Wednesday with a smudge on their foreheads. (Similar exercises might include Scripture study groups before work or during lunch, prayer or meditation in public, or even using prayer to start meetings.)

The main argument for these displays of religiosity seem to be to show that we are not somehow “ashamed” of our religion or, better yet, to create an opening to proselytize our fellow workers to join our particular faith or denomination.

Jesus, of course, advised against this approach:

“When you practice some appetite-denying discipline to better concentrate on God, don’t make a production out of it. It might turn you into a small-time celebrity but it won’t make you a saint. If you ‘go into training’ inwardly, act normal outwardly. Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth, wash your face. God doesn’t require attention-getting devices. He won’t overlook what you are doing; he’ll reward you well.”  —Matthew 6:16-18, The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition

That advice seems pretty straightforward to mean when it comes to Ash Wednesday. Yes, it is good to be reminded, “You are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” But it is not so obvious that it is good to force that reminder on other people. Maybe they already realize it. Or maybe they choose to remind themselves of the fact in some other way or with some other religious practice.

What will make a difference, of course, is how we act. Not on Ash Wednesday but throughout the year. Do we act as if we only have a short time on Earth, that we are merely caretakers of creation, that a higher power is ultimately in charge of what is going to happen, and that how we do our work is as important as what we do for a living? Instead of acts of piety in the workplace, we need to come to the workplace with the mindset that God is already there. Again, Jesus was clear on this:

“Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense (divine) grace.”  —Matthew 6:6, The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition

So, by all means pray. But when you go to work, don’t force your piety on others. Instead, act at work in such a way that people ask you, “Why do you appear so happy and fulfilled in your work?” or “Why do you treat others with such love and kindness?” or “How is it that you appear to balance your work with your personal and family life so well?” or “What makes you so clear on the difference between right and wrong and gives you the courage to stand up for your beliefs.”

It is then, and only then, that you will have an opportunity to explain how your spiritual practices affect how you do your work. Jesus said it this way:

“When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.  —Matthew 6:1-4, The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition

Copyright (c) 2015 Gregory F. Augustine Pierce

(Gregory F. Augustine Pierce is the president and publisher of ACTA Publications in Chicago and the author of The World As It Should Be: Living Authentically in the Here-and-Now Kingdom of God and Spirituality at Work: Ten Ways to Balance Your Life On-the-Job.)

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