On Ash Wednesday I often think of the following passage from 'The Fellowship of the Ring':
Putting [the horn] to his lips he blew a blast, and the echoes leapt from rock to rock, and all that heard that voice in Rivendell sprang to their feet.
'Slow should you be to wind that horn again, Boromir,' said Elrond, 'until you stand once more on the borders of your land, and dire need is on you.'
'Maybe,' said Boromir. 'But always I have let my horn cry at setting forth, and though thereafter we may walk in the shadows, I will not go forth as a thief in the night.'
The connection with this holy day may not be obvious. I first thought of this passage not because of the line 'Sound the trumpet in Zion!' in today's first reading (although I will gladly take it as further justification), but because of some reflection on an apparent contradiction in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday.
In the Gospel reading Jesus tells us to fast in secret, unlike the hypocrites who 'pull long faces to let men know they are fasting.' He tells us to 'wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting...' And then a few minutes later we're all queuing up to get ash on our foreheads, so that we can all walk out of church with a big mark that says, 'I'm starting Lent!'
Not wanting to assume that we're all just ignoring Jesus, I tried to think how this fits together. And the above-quoted passage from Tolkien somehow came to mind. Because I think what we're doing in our Ash Wednesday liturgy is like Boromir blowing his horn as he sets off, even though prudence will keep him from doing so again for many days to come. The safety of our souls will keep us from advertising our penances to others during the season of Lent, lest we fall into pride and vanity; but as we begin the journey we encourage each other and declare our intent to remain steadfast through the trials.
The smudge of ash on my forehead declares that I stand with all my brothers and sisters who are embarking on the same quest. The penances we undertake may be known to each one alone, but the fact that we're in the battle together is publicly acknowledged.
As the Collect for the Mass puts it, 'Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service... as we take up battle against spiritual evils'. 'Sound the trumpet in Zion', because we will not go forth like thieves in the night!