Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we? We’re here tonight to observe a tradition that traditional Protestant readings of Scripture flatly reject. Many folks aren’t even here, because this is not a service they think is necessary, their upbringing called “pagan” or “popish”, or worse. For others, it is just too demonstrative. Some folks don’t even wear crosses, much less walk about on this day with smidges on their heads.
So, why does the United Methodist Church observe this day, when we never used to? Christian radio doesn’t talk about it much, a lot of the churches we hear about that aren’t Catholic don’t do it. Why do we? And what about that scripture text you just read, pastor?
All good questions. All questions that I have wrestled with, too, and continue to.
First of all, there is something old, ancient, and slightly mysterious about this act. Ashes on your head. The Bible has all these places where putting ashes on your head is the symbol of mourning. Sackcloth and ashes, they go together a lot. By doing it, it seems like there is some sort of connection between us and the people of Nineveh, all the Biblical heroes.
But what if we are not in mourning? Why do we all do it on one day, and then go wash it off, and don’t do it again for another year?
Now we get into one of the meanings of ritual. Why do we gather together on Sundays? Couldn’t we all just pray, sing, do all those things we do at home? Couldn’t we jut hear a good message by turning on the radio, or the TV, or now, even downloading a podcast or watching a sermon on YouTube? Well yes, we could. But there’s something to doing it together, in one place that is dedicated for that task, with no separation from each other. We need companionship.
Today I was down at the hospital, and there were many people who had been to an Ash Wednesday service. There had also apparently been some priests who had administered ashes to people in the waiting rooms, too. People were walking around a hospital marked with the ashes of Ash Wednesday, which are usually given with the words “from dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.” A reminder of death in and among the relatives of people who are in many cases, very near death. It seems to cross a line, to somehow be in bad taste, to acknowledge that death is the end of all of us in a place where death is so close for some of us. But I felt a kinship with all of those marked people, knowing that they at least had declared themselves as something today. Catholics? Christians? Sinners? Yes, for some, all three. And I was with them in my heart as they did so.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent. It is the beginning of forty days of “getting real” with ourselves and with each other. The Jews have their day of Atonement, we have our 40 days to pull ourselves together enough to try to reconcile with those we have fought with. It is our time to get real, and it begins with a reminder that we are not all that and a bag of chips. We get too big for our britches, too, and while someone may be wrong, our sin is in getting resentful about it. The cards I made for you all are a quote from the Celtic Daily Prayer prayerbook I have, and it is one of the entries for Lent.
Ash Wednesday is the Christian traditions’ giving you an opportunity to “get real”. We are human. We are less than the angels. We will die. We are less than God intended us to be. And it is through sin that we are so. We must repent. We must change direction. We must not persist in resentments. We must not be stubborn. We must repent, and seek reconciliation.
Yes, you may say. We get that. Lent is about repentance and reconciliation. But shouldn’t that be private? Why this public statement? Matthew does say that we aren’t’ to practice our piety in public.
Well, let’s read it again. Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” And again in verse 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.
The prohibition isn’t against praying in public. The prohibition is against praying in public so that you will be seen. Acknowledging your mortality, beginning a journey of repentance, discipline, Scripture reading and prayer in the way that the Christian church has long done so isn’t a really good way to make yourself look good. Rather, ashes are the acknowledgement that we have fallen short of the glory of God, and we do want to be better stewards of God’s love.
Ashes are messy. Ashes clog your pores. Ashes drop dust down on your glasses and clothes. If you wanted to be seen as a Good Christian, there are lots better ways than by having a smudge of dirt on your face.
But then again, perhaps that is the point. If we are seen as so obviously imperfect, if Christians look and feel a little bit foolish on this day, then maybe that is the first step toward what the day is for.