Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ashes on the forehead: public declarations not of virtue, but of unworthiness (Ash Wednesday, Matt. 6:1-6,16-18)

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

* * * * * * * *

Isn’t it strange that we’re beginning the season of Lent with what is seemingly the exact opposite of what Jesus commands us in the gospel reading?

“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them”, he reminds us. And yet the whole world will see our crosses as a mark of our piety. They will be there for everyone to see and to know that we’ve been to church today.

Still, the ashes on our forehead will not be a declaration of our virtue or piety. Instead they will represent a public declaration of our unworthiness, our sinfulness, our inadequacy and our need for God.

The crosses traced on our foreheads on this day proclaim not our goodness, but our sinfulness and our need for repentance.

It’s an admission that despite all our victories, successes and triumphs in life, we remain imperfect creatures in need of God’s mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

In this we hope to be different from the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees criticized by Jesus in tonight’s gospel. For their displays of faith and religiosity were meant to be no more than that: a display, for everyone to see.

We, however, wear our ashes, not to parade our piety, goodness and devotion, but to tell the whole world, and to remind ourselves especially, of how weak and incomplete our commitments can be at times: to God, to others, and to ourselves.

Wearing the cross of ashes, we proclaim not our virtue, but our dependence on God and our intention to look deep into ourselves this Lent and ask some very important questions:

Has my life been consistent with my being a follower of Christ? How much commitment have I given to my faith, to those who need me, to my church, and to my God?

The ashes on our forehead others will indeed see. But our answer to these questions will be ours alone—ours and our heavenly Father who will see in secret how we shall answer them over the next forty days of Lent.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)