For thousands of years, ashes have been used for liturgical purposes, sign-acts that symbolize how relationship with God and God’s people is going. Mordecai covered himself in burlap and charcoal when he heard the king’s ominous decree; Job when he apologized for his unknowing; Daniel prior to the desolation of the Holy City.
The early Church formalized the ritual, publically marking believers as a reminder of sin, a call to repentance, an expression of grief. Later, Ash Wednesday evolved into the beginning of Lent, the forty-day trek in the wilderness of living lean and walking the straight and narrow, of following Jesus to Jerusalem.
The last buffet on Fat Tuesday has been stomached, the final beads of Mardi Gras have been thrown, and it is time to replace the confetti with the cross. So how does this scripture prepare us for Ash Wednesday?
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 “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.
Christianity isn’t supposed to be the popular choice, the one that gets you a gold star.
Following Jesus takes us to the cross, not to the parade or places of popularity.
Discipleship can’t be done for the payoff.
If you truly give from a generous heart, then why demand a drum roll and your name in lights before signing the check? If you sincerely offer petitions on bended knee, then why only pray with a megaphone in the public square at rush hour? If you faithfully fast without notice, then why contort your face and air your complaints for all to see and hear? If you trust in God’s economy of plenty, then why the anxiety driven stock options, the fearful investment in investments, the caches of cash?
How does this scripture prepare us for Ash Wednesday?
It forces us to deal with our duplicity, to confront our hypocrisies. Kathleen Norris says, “And it may be that growing to mature adulthood requires us to reject the popular mythology- that life is simply handed to us; that love is easy, quick, fated, and romantic; that death is a subject to be avoided altogether.”
In a culture of denial that whispers, “He passed,” or “She expired,” or “They are no longer with us,” that hurries the gurney to the morgue and affords only a few days of bereavement leave, we are constantly reminded of the last great taboo: death.
Still, Nora Bowes, a former nurse and professor at Kean University takes her college students to visit hospices and crematories, to maximum-security prisons and hospital basements. Their assignments include listening to the stories of loss, writing your own will and penning your eulogy. They study the biology of dying and the spirituality of living. She named it the “Death Class.”
Church, Ash Wednesday is the public declaration that the funeral home has already been notified, that none of us get out of this alive and that Lent is our enrollment in God’s death class. So come to receive the mark of mortality, the black smudge of Good News that proclaims the Gospel’s haunting truth, that if it begins with burlap and charcoal, then it must surely end with an empty tomb and a rolled away stone.