“Ashes to Go”

Mt. 6

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

I rarely preach during the services on Ash Wednesday.

The people who come to church on this day are usually in a rush to get back to work or catch a train home. The special liturgy for the day is already on the long side. So I tend just to let the words of the service speak for themselves.

Still, I sometimes think that it would be useful if I had time to discuss what happens in church on Ash Wednesday. On the one hand, we gather to have ashes placed on our foreheads. That’s where the day gets its name.

On the other hand, the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is a Bible text in which Jesus gives this command to his disciples: “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.”

Jesus then goes on to say to his followers: “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.”

Now the “disfiguring” of faces that Jesus mentions was the Hebrew practice of putting ashes on one’s face on days of penitence and fasting. And isn’t this exactly what people do on Ash Wednesday?

So aren’t we then acting contrary to Christ’s teaching? The ashes on our foreheads show that we have been to church and very likely that we have been fasting since Ash Wednesday is an official fast day of the church. So doesn’t this practice mean that we are demonstrating our piety before others? Aren’t we making ourselves look holy in front of other people?

Even someone who knows little about Christianity recognizes that the ashes are a sign that we Christians recognize our mortality—that we know that we are dependent upon God. When the ashes are administered, the priest says the words God said to Adam as he was being ejected from Paradise: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

So are we ignoring Christ’s warning about showing off our religion? Answering this question is complicated. Here’s what I think.

First, we should note that Jesus is making a logical point about saying that we’re sorry. Penitence means admitting that we have done things we wish we hadn’t done, or that we have failed to do things we wish we had done. Penitence means recognizing that we’re not perfect—that we’re not as great as we think we are!

In that case, the ashes on our foreheads can’t be something that we’re proud of! We can’t boast that we’re sinners. That would indeed be hypocritical.

So should we stop getting ashes? Should we be sorry “in secret,” as Jesus suggests?

Well, maybe for some of us, privately saying we’re sorry doesn’t have a big enough effect on our souls. Maybe we need an extra push. Maybe we need an act of public penitence in order to acknowledge that we’re not perfect.

In this case, we wouldn’t get the ashes so that we would look pious. We would actually be sorry for our sins. So even though we “disfigure our faces,” we would still be following the spirit of Christ’s teaching.

Remember, too, the context of Christ’s words. Jesus was commenting on the exaggerated piety of some prominent Hebrews. These Hebrews were members of the Pharisee party that claimed to be reforming the Jewish religion.

Their “reform,” though, often consisted not of new religious customs but rather of reviving old rules. So in practicing the tradition of applying ashes scrupulously, the Pharisees appeared to be flaunting their faith. They looked like they thought they were “holier-than-thou.”

As Jesus observed, this isn’t a way to commend your religion to others! It doesn’t matter whether you look devout. What matters is whether you’re faithful in your heart.

It’s also worth noting that our church’s rules about Ash Wednesday observance also preserve our personal freedom. We Episcopalians are all welcome to receive the ashes if we wish, and some of us will feel that we need to. But we’re not required to have our foreheads marked with ashes. We don’t have the “holy days of obligation” that some churches have.

Indeed, in our own congregation, there have always been some members who attend church on Ash Wednesday and participate in the liturgy and say the confession–but choose not to receive the ashes. There are others who prefer to ask God’s pardon privately.

Yet if we do symbolically “disfigure our faces,” we don’t need to fear that we are going against Christ’s teaching. In our culture, this sign of penitence isn’t a status symbol–as it was for some of the Pharisees in the time of Jesus.

In our own times, the ashes are a public sign of faith.

Some of you may have read the classic American novel by Stephen Crane called, The Red Badge of Courage. The title comes from the blood stains that appeared on bandages that were wrapped around the head of soldiers who were wounded in the Civil War. The red marks were evidence that the soldiers had the courage to go into battle and fight.

In a similar way, the ashes of Ash Wednesday are public signs that the bearers of these marks are committed to the Christian religion. In our secular culture, such signs are rare.

For example, clothes today suggest a person’s sense of style. What someone wears shows whether the person is cool, or perhaps the person’s availability for romance. Jewelry and watches can indicate a person’s good taste.

But none of these visual symbols are anything like the display of ashes on one’s forehead! For one thing, ashes are ugly. And they represent an attitude that is rare in our society: admitting that you’re not perfect.

So leaving the church with ashes on your face is a profoundly counter-cultural act. The ashes remind those who see you of their own mortality. The ashes may help others to recall that they aren’t perfect—that they have things to feel sorry for.

Now in the last few years, some churches have offered what they call, “ashes to go.” Their clergy stand in front of the churches to give out the ashes to anyone who wants them.

I don’t know whether this is a good idea or not. If people are really sorry for their sins, can’t they make the effort to walk inside the church to receive a sign of penitence? Would the powerful symbolism of the ashes be diluted if they were so easy to receive?

On the other hand, I like the idea of the church reaching out into the secular world, reaching out to offer a powerful sign that is opposed to the “me first,” “I’m special” mentality of our times.

As the Ash Wednesday liturgy says, “Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life.”

Now unto God the Father…Amen.


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