Ash Wednesday, Year A
Jesus said, “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.
“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. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“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. 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.
“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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 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. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
It’s that time of year again. That magical season that comes where winter begins to abate, the first daffodils and dogwoods bloom, the birds begin to return and sing, the old gloom of winter beginning to melt away, replaced by the vibrant life and color of spring. It is a wonderful season where the world finally seems to come back to life after the winter misery. What better way to celebrate the coming of spring, and all the new life that comes with it, than to come to church; where with your closest friends and family, you can be reminded that you are all going to die. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.
Yes, it’s that wonderful time of year again, the great season penitence and self-imposed suffering. As the outside world grows more beautiful, the church becomes more plain. The days get longer, and so do the sermons. Get out your trumpets to sound the alarm, the day of darkness and gloom is here, it’s Lent. Fun is dead and we have killed it. But hey, at least we have fond memories of pancakes as consolation.
Lent provides us with quite the cognitive dissonance, as we are told by the world that it is the season of spring break trips, of fun, growth and new life, yet in church we are told to be grim, stoic, penitent, not even to let the dreaded “A”-word of joy escape from our lips. While it is good to have a season encouraging the practice of discipline, and to take time to think how our sins, known and unknown, impact our lives and the wider world; the challenge of this season comes not refraining from sweets or beholding whatever discipline we’ve decided to take on, nor from examining our failings and genuinely repenting. The challenge of this season is doing all these things authentically.
The tone and language of Lent is hard to match with our lives, it can almost seem comically out of touch. The talk of temptation, the battle between good and evil, the prophets’ cries of all our hypocrisy for lack of social justice, while we all know to be true, is hard to authentically feel. It seems like the season of Lent is designed to guilt us into pretending that we feel guilty, to suppress any feeling of levity or joy, all for the sake of taking our faith “seriously”. Because clearly “serious” faith and “genuine repentance” requires us to be miserable all the time, constantly bemoaning and bewailing our manifold sins and wickedness.
Thankfully that is not the purpose or meaning of Lent. While repentance, an awareness of sin, and commitment to disciplined following of Christ are all the hallmarks of the Lenten season, guilt, misery, and self-imposed anguish are not. Anyone else find today’s gospel reading a bit of a strange choice? Here we are in a service where we are about to get ashes on our forehead to kick off a season of fasting, while in the Gospel reading, Jesus mocks those who look dismal while fasting and who “disfigure” their faces to show their piety? Of all the wonderful passages about repenting, of reconciliation, of turning from a life of sin to a life of grace, why is this the Gospel that was chosen?
What if I told you it was to make you laugh? When Jesus was giving these examples, he was expecting his audience to laugh. He comes up with the most outlandish examples possible. Who makes such a show of their charity to blow a trumpet before them? Or pray so loudly in the street that people can hear it in the next block over? He is using humor and hyperbole to illustrate his point: that sometimes when trying to be serious in their religious commitments, the religious are prone to taking themselves too seriously.
For all the usual talk during Lent about suppressing earthly desires, appetites, and temptations, I don’t know that there are any among us that are such extravagant hedonists that we need to devote a whole season to teaching self-control and the virtue of modesty. For the folks who are willing to take time out of busy lives to come reflect on their mortality, the temptations we are more likely to fall into are pride, despair, anxiety, worship of religion, and resentment of God’s seemingly impossibly high standards. The temptations of the religious are often not worldliness, but losing oneself in pursuit of the spiritual; trying desperately to walk the path of righteousness, but being unsure which path that is, and doubting their own intentions each step of the way.
How then, are we to ward off such temptations? Jesus’ examples point to living authentically as the safeguard against both worldly and existential temptations. For those seeking earthly glory as they pray, fast, or give alms, they have received their earthly reward, they presumably achieve the approval of others they seek. For those who live in fear that they are only practicing religion to receive earthly glory, Jesus’ teaching reminds us that God knows our hearts, and God loves us. Notice that in Jesus’ example that all the good deeds, the prayers, fasts, and almsgiving, are rewarded. Even if done poorly, God is actively seeking to reward acts of love, kindness, and devotion. What Jesus observes is that we should all be striving for the heavenly reward, rather than settling for the earthly.
Here is the real challenge of seeking heavenly treasure, and the real call of the Lenten season: “how do I know that I am living out my faith authentically?” There is no easy answer to the question, because the question of authenticity can only be answered between you and God. Make no mistake, this question is not meant to cast us into the outer darkness of self-doubt, but a call to self-examination.
Just because no one can answer the question for you does not mean you have to make the journey alone. Precisely the opposite! If you only have one mirror to examine yourself, you could never see the back of your head. God and our fellow travelers in this community walk alongside us, encouraging us, challenging us, calling us to solemnity when we are too frivolous and levity when we are too serious.
Now before us is our first chance of the season to find authentic and self-examined religion, both as a community of believers and as individuals. Soon we will have the opportunity to have ashes imposed on our foreheads, a symbol of our mortality and our commitment to follow Jesus through His death and Resurrection. What does it mean for you to wear these ashes? And more importantly, are you going to wear them for the rest of the day, or wash them off after the service?
Jesus tells us to share the Gospel, to proclaim God’s love with a trumpet and shout it from every hilltop. Wearing the ashes makes a profound statement against the ills of our society, and an invitation to conversation with others about what a life following Christ means. At the same time, Jesus tells us not to make audacious shows of our faith. That to disfigure our faces and proclaim to the world how pious we are only brings ourselves glory instead of glory to God. Wearing the ashes only out of a sense of obligation or fear is cause for confusion and distraction, rather than spiritual growth. Wear the ashes or do not wear the ashes, there is good reason to choose either path. The only right answer is one chosen authentically.
Though no one can make the choice for you, you do not have to make the decision alone. Consider this wisdom that was raised up through our community years ago: “While one cannot go entirely wrong either way, those who are inclined to wear their ashes in public probably need to wash them off after the service, and those who are inclined not to wear their ashes after the service probably need to wear their ashes in public.” And no matter what you choose, God loves you. Thanks be to God.