Ash Wednesday

“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

Today is the start of the observance of Lent. I don’t know about you, but I feel like we have been in a perpetual state of Lent this entire last year. Just about a month from now, we entered lockdown thinking that it would be short, and we would get back to normal. But here we are, anything but ordinary and preparing for another Easter in lockdown. Like the pandemic, Lent is a time to take stock of our lives to see what we might be willing and able to change.

The Gospel passage appointed for today is part of the Sermon on the Mount. At first glance, the words appear to be a condemnation of hypocrisy, and that it indeed is, but it is more than that. There is something offensive about hypocritical displays of piety. The etymology of hypocrisy, from the Greek; play-acting, pretending, concealing the true self, suggests a lacking of integrity. There is this idea that hypocrites can hide their true motives and character from us.

However, Jesus is saying much more in this passage. Contained here are some of the most profound and perceptive spiritual words of Jesus. Jesus speaks of doing things in secret, “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” (v 6). Jesus is urging us to look at why we do what we do and ask ourselves what our motivation is?

Our spirituality should be intrinsically motivated and focus on our existential, personal relationship with God. We do not look to what can be gained socially in this relationship or achieve anything other than a relationship with God. This relationship with God is its own reward and an end within itself. The passage tells us that we must pray, fast, and give alms “in secret” because it is “in secret” where our relationship with God is its own reward.

There has been much discussion amongst my clergy colleagues concerning the distribution of ashes during the pandemic. Is there a safe way, or should ashes be distributed at all? There is a desire amongst the faithful for this ritual as it lends a sense of normalcy to what has been happening in our world. But at the same time, we ask, is it necessary? The ritual says it is optional but is it essential?

Why do we receive ashes? When the ashes are placed on our forehead, the ritual words used are, “Remember thou art dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ashes are a reminder of our mortality in an outward and visible sign. If there was ever a time when being reminded of our mortality was unnecessary, it certainly has to be during these last months of the pandemic. COVID-19 has touched the lives of many and taken loved ones and friends from so many I am confident we are aware of our mortality.

Rituals are essential, and the imposition of ashes is only a part of the larger ritual for Ash Wednesday.

Several years ago, I participated in “Ashes to go.” We took ashes out of the church and to the people at the local train station. The notion was that our lives had become so busy and folks could not get to church, but there was a desire for the ritual in our lives. We had a sign, and folks would approach. We would say a short prayer and impose ashes on their forehead. The ritual was complete; the box was checked, but what came next.

Earlier I mentioned that we must seek an existential, personal relationship with God, which is true. But that relationship cannot exist in isolation. There is a communal aspect to our relationship with God, where we work out our spirituality. Community is not what it was a year ago, but community still exists and is vital to our spiritual maturity. Yes, the imposition of ashes is part of that communal experience, but it is not the only way.

Traditionally Lent was a time when those separated from the church were reconciled to the church and to others. In the Orthodox Christian church, Lent begins with forgiveness asked and forgiveness granted. If we require an outward sign of our Lenten observance, look towards forgiveness and reconciliation and repair relationships. Each day we are reminded of our mortality, do not wait until it is too late.

As we start Lent I will leave you with the words from the Ash Wednesday Service as found in the Book of Common Prayer and wish you a holy season.

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

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