Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21 Ash Wednesday Susan J. Barnes
February 10, 2016 St. John’s, Minneapolis
1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” Jesus cautions all of his disciples: we are mistaken to seek spiritual affirmation from others. The world cannot give it to us. Instead, seek within. True faith, true spirituality, true meaning can only be found in the intimacy of a personal relationship with God.
We read this same gospel every Ash Wednesday and there’s one particular section that has brought me up me short for years.
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting…but when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Has it ever struck you that Jesus seems to condemn the very thing that we do at the Ash Wednesday service? We read those words and then we disfigure our faces–making the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads. For a couple of years, I was so bothered, so conflicted, that I washed my face before going out after services!
My mistake was trying to apply words about a first century Jewish practice to a 21st century Christian one. Like so many passages in scripture, this one cannot be literally transposed.
The imposition of ashes has inaugurated the season of Lent at least since the time of Pope Gregory the Great, who died in 604. In those days every church would have been filled on Ash Wednesday. Every Christian–and very few people weren’t–would have taken part in this solemn service and in the Lenten disciplines that followed.
Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans continued the practice. Reform denominations broke with it. But in recent decades many have taken it up.
So what might it mean today to receive and to wear the sign of the cross in ashes on your forehead?
I think it bears witness to four aspects of our faith: identity, humility, repentance, and blessing.
Wearing the ashes you and I identify ourselves as followers of Jesus. We say that we have chosen to live as far as we are able according to the gospel of love, compassion, and inclusion, to strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being. The cross identifies us as people of faith in this secular age and culture. Ours is not the only path to God. But it is the one we have received and embraced. As John Bellaimey once said when asked why he is Christian, “It is my story.”
The ashen cross is a mark of humility. It shows that we have come today to confess to God and one another that we are far from perfect. We make mistakes. The root of the word humility is humus: dirt, the earth. We are mortal, formed of the earth to which we will all return–as ashes or as dust. In our mortality, in our fallibility we need God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
Repentance. As Jim Wallis said in his Westminster Town Hall talk last week, repentance means that we’re not just sorry for our wrong doing. Repentance means we are committed to changing our ways of thinking and behaving. Repentance is the work of a lifetime because we ARE fallible and frail. We can only bear to face our short comings a few at a time. And God is merciful enough not to pull back the curtain on them all at once! As we trust more fully in God’s love and forgiveness, God’s grace shines more deeply into the places of our shame, sorrow and regret. We see the sins we could not face before. Day by day, year by year, God invites us graciously to the transformation of repentance.
Finally, the cross is a sign of God’s eternal blessing. We first receive it in baptism, when the priest or bishop makes the cross on our foreheads in oil. Invisible, yet indelible, it becomes part of our bodily reality. Some of us remind ourselves of that by making the sign of the cross on our bodies or our foreheads ourselves.
We may ask for a personal priestly blessing. That priestly touch, that blessing gesture, is a part of the sacrament of reconciliation (formerly called confession in the Roman church). The blessing is a sacrament itself, called anointing or unction (because of the specially-blessed oil with which the cross is made). In the Catholic traditional this was thought of as the Last Rite. But unction or anointment invokes God’s healing grace at any time in this life, or, indeed, as one journeys to the next.
In all of these cases, as in baptism, the sign of the cross is unseen Only on Ash Wednesday–once a year–does it become visible to others.
As you go forth today, you may choose to wipe the ashes off of your forehead for any number of reasons. You may well forget that they are there until you see someone else wearing them, too. Then you may exchange a smile of mutual recognition.
Whatever the case, know that the cross in ashes is a powerful symbol. To those who recognize it, it attests to your identity, your humility, and your repentance. First, last, and always, it is a sign of God’s blessing in this life and the life t come.
Receive it, then, with the humility and gratitude it merits, and the honor and the blessing it bestows.