Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Paradox always seems to hit in the most sacred of moments. Today, I am experiencing some serious conflict between what we have come here together to do this morning and the gospel passage for today. Ash Wednesday is best known for the imposition of ashes in the sign of the cross on our foreheads, but it is also known as a major fast day for the Church. A day where people give up food, sweets, meats, and all manner of other things in order to focus on God. Yet, in the gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus tells us very specifically not to make it known to everyone that we are fasting… which is slightly incongruous with putting ashes on our heads. Paradoxical? Maybe. Hypocritical? Maybe.
The true question underneath this ironic situation is, “What is appropriate piety to practice?” This passage in Matthew is structured around the three major ways of the Jewish tradition to practice piety, to practice following their beliefs. First, alms giving. Second, prayer. Third, fasting. Jesus is teaching on these three pillars of the Jewish practice in order to teach his followers differently from what the religious leaders of the day are teaching. Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus at work combating the ideas of the religious leaders of the day through modeling as an example of what to do instead of what was shown by others. Even in the way that Jesus talks about these three practices you can feel the tension going on. The passage goes back and forth between what hypocrites do and what we should do. The passage goes back and forth between human rewards and divine rewards. The passage goes back and forth between the reality of what happens and the intention of the practice.
This conflict gets even worse when we think about what we are doing today in our service. Putting ashes on our heads during a fast and looking sad during a Eucharistic service. How many times in your life do you think you have ever looked bored while in church? How many times in our lives have we come to church simply because we feel like we have to? We fast when we should be feasting. Our regular Sunday morning service is a celebration of thanksgiving, a time when we are feasting because of the abundance that God has given us, and yet… many times the spirit in the pews is not one of rejoicing. Yet we come to Ash Wednesday and we could almost be said to be showing off.
So what does it mean to be hypocritical? Originally, the word used was the same word used for actors in plays. Today we use the word for those whose words and actions did not lineup, who say one thing, but mean or do another. Hypocrites remind me of the two faced Roman god Janus. Hypocrisy in our spiritual and communal lives means that when we parade around what we are doing, while justifying ourselves with the intention, but simply looking for others to notice us, we are causing our actions and words to not line up. When it comes to true piety, practice of our beliefs, we have to follow through on the intentions of the practices and not just the actions. We do things for their own reward, not because other people will notice that we are doing them.
The ashes that we will wear this day reflect a true intention. They will be blessed, with the intention that they are a symbol for us, and not just to others who see them. However, they are only part of the symbolism that is being made. The season of Lent throughout history was primarily a time to prepare those who were going to baptized. The catechumenates, those preparing for baptism, spent the entire six weeks of Lent preparing, learning, and changing their behaviors, in order to be able to live the new life of a Christian when they were baptized, usually on Easter Sunday. Thus, the counterpart of the symbol of ashes on our foreheads is the seal of oil that is put on our foreheads when we are baptized. We are dust, but we are also beloved children of God. For those of us who have been baptized, that seal is still on our foreheads, and the two, the ashes and oil, mix together. We know the new life in Christ. But we also know the death of life in Christ as well. We are reborn with Christ in his resurrection because we die with Christ in his crucifixion.
Each year, we take the season of Lent to remember and prepare anew for this reality to be made more real in us. Though not many of us are going through this journey for the first time, we still continue with this journey. Like the legendary phoenix, which prepares to die, though we know it will be reborn from the ashes of its death. We prepare ourselves for death, hoping to join in Christ’s resurrection. The ashes on our foreheads show this preparation, this time of growth, this journey that we begin. Not individually, but together, as the body of Christ with all the believers.
How do we prepare? We give, we pray, we fast. Not as the hypocrites, but as people who know and believe in the intention of the practices. As people who have no thoughts as to the rewards. If our ultimate goal is the living out of God’s love for this world, then Jesus sets out a few examples in this passage for us to follow. Be a good steward and don't brag about it, he says. Prayer has one purpose, conversation with God, he teaches. You don’t need to be verbose, you don’t need to always include others, you don’t always have to have your conversation with God out loud. Jesus reminds us, Be sincere. Enjoy your relationship with God. Remember that what matters is the love of God, the love of neighbor - these are the treasures worth having.