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November 5, 2017: Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying,
“The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:1-12)


Each Ash Wednesday Jesus’ stern warning against living to look as if one is doing good floats through my mind. Receiving ashes and wearing them seems such a public ceremony for what is really the soul’s private moment with God. The soul is acknowledging then letting go of past mistakes, humbly standing before the Creator of everything that is, and yearning for this year’s chance to do a better job.

One year I was teaching my college lab section on Wednesday. That Ash Wednesday a number of students asked what the mark meant. My gut reaction was to cover the ashes. However, the question persisted. Though the college was a secular institution, when a student asked, I explained to whatever level the student wished to learn.

College students get to write evaluations of the instructors. The teacher gets these after class has ended. That summer I opened the envelope and received a surprising message. One evaluation read, “Thank you for letting me know I can be a Catholic and a Scientist.” As I was sure I had never had any such a conversation with any of those students, it was some moments before it clicked for me about the ashes.

After this experience I better understood the balance between one’s public and private life. One could only serve as a good example if that were really where one’s heart was set. Jesus’ words were a call to live one’s life humbly, walking with God and remaining focused on loving one’s neighbor. When one did so, just by living and being who one is, one could be a tool by which God could work wonders in our world.


This week try to do a random act of kindness and do it anonymously. Hand over to God the responsibility of bringing forth good from your intentions and actions.

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Helen Flavin

Helen Flavin is a Providence Associate. She is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer. Helen received her Ph.D. in Neurochemistry from Boston College. She is a fulltime science teacher. She is a guest columnist for her Diocese’s Catholic Newspaper “The Anchor.” She enjoys volunteering at the local nursing home.

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1 Comment

  1. Mary on November 2, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    Excellent point, Helen. I’ve thought the same myself. The ashes should be a reminder to ourselves, first, that we are mere mortals and will therefore die one day. So, we want to do good as it comes from our heart, which Godde sees, not to be seen by others, but as a response to the Spirit urging us to love one another.
    And, secondly, to be seen by others who might ask about the ashes. And our response can be simple & honest — it’s a reminder to ourselves. And it becomes a chance to witness to others who ask.

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