In the Name…
In recent years, there has arisen an interesting Lenten practice called “Ashes to Go.” You may have heard of it. This involves clergy standing in public places and offering to put ashes on the foreheads of passers-by. A more traditional priest of my acquaintance, however, has his doubts about it and feels Ash Wednesday is a time when people should get their ash in church. Yes. It’s going to be a long Lent.
But, I've always been struck by the great irony that on Ash Wednesday we make it a practice to put ashes on our foreheads in plain sight of all when Jesus specifically says in Matthew 6.1-6, "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them."
I'm sure I'm not the only person who has wondered about this. And, there are some Christians who use that text as an argument against observing Ash Wednesday at all.
But, if you look closely, you'll see Jesus says some other things in that same passage which are equally disturbing. He seems to suggest it’s better to pray at home rather than in a synagogue. So, is Jesus also saying we shouldn't go to church? Or, what he says about making sure your charitable acts are always done anonymously. Is Jesus saying that we shouldn’t sign pledge cards or make memorial gifts? I don't hear many pastors or people getting too literal there.
Fortunately, just a few verses before this we have Jesus also making the emphatic point, "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven." And this verse is what make this text intelligible.
In the Gospel, Jesus uses the word "upocrites" a lot. We translate it as “hypocrite.” What we might not grasp, though, is that in his time this was nothing more than the common Greek word for "actor." It didn't have any more meaning than that. Jesus uses the word, though, to describe not the local dramatic society, but, the Pharisees, the Jewish denomination which believed in observing the Law of Moses to the nth degree.
Now, since the Law of Moses is the Law of God you'd think that what the Pharisees were doing was a good thing. The problem was that the Pharisees had become so obsessed with rituals and ceremonies, they completely forgot the spirit behind them and were making themselves, and not God, the centre of attention.
For example, and these are the ones Jesus uses, they would hire a guy to literally blow a trumpet when they made their offerings at the Temple. They would stand in public places and launch into loud lengthy prayers. They would wear cloths over their faces while observing fasts. And they did this as a way of reminding less observant Jews of the duties of prayer, fasting, and tithing. Great idea - lousy method. So, Jesus said they were being nothing more than actors, playing a part for an audience. They weren't converting anybody.
Yes, prayer, fasting, and tithing were all part of the Law, but, the Law was about something much more than external self-improvement duties. It was about internal community-improving relationships. It's about showing love for God, our neighbour, and ourselves.
Prayer - that's talking to God, building a relationship with him. We talk to the ones we love, so we should be talking to God, getting to know him more and more. And, when we talk to God about others for whom we have concerns, we're developing relationships with them, as well.
Tithing - this is one of the ways we show love of neighbour, by providing for the needs of others. And by providing for the needs of the church, we show love for God.
Fasting - is a way we show love for ourselves. We are sensory beings surrounded by sensory pleasures. We do, we eat, we watch whatever it is that pleases us - and what pleases us is not always what's good for us. But, self-control and self-denial are always good for us. Do we need to give up some foods or take a fast from some people who may be leading us astray? Books, magazines, TV shows, websites? We can all give up a few things for good.
These things are as true today as they were in Jesus' time and, if we practice them with the right spirit we can become a shining example to the world in ways the Pharisees failed. Yes, we should live this way and let our good works be seen, but, for God's glory and not our own.
And, all this has a bearing on the ashes we wore on Ash Wednesday.
Ashes, you see, are a reminder of what we really are as mortal creatures of earth. The Bible tells us that we came from the dust and to the dust we shall return. The first human was moulded out of dust of the earth by God and then God breathed life into that dust. Without the breath or Spirit of God we are just like the ashes - dead.
And, why do we put the ashes in the form of a cross on our forehead? This is a ceremony which recalls to us our baptism ceremonies. When we were baptized, the minister marked us on the forehead with the sign of the cross as a symbolic reminder that in the Book of Revelation, an angel marks the faithful as a sign of ownership and protection.
Making the sign of the cross with ashes is a reminder of what we are without baptism, of our true mortal, human nature. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. They are a reminder of just how much we need God in order to live in this world and the next.
They're actually nothing to boast about. In fact, I don't think the Pharisees would have liked Ash Wednesday very much. They prided themselves on how much they were doing for God. The ashes signify how much God has done for us.
Jesus said to beware falling into the trap of pride while practicing piety. Fair enough, but, we shouldn't make avoiding that trap an excuse not to practice any piety and especially an excuse not to show love for God, our neighbour, and ourselves.
So, let the memory of the ashes remind us who we are and whose we are and let us give thanks for the rest of the Lenten Season, by praying, fasting, and tithing.
In the Name...