A Post Ash Wednesday Reflection
The priest who preached the Ash Wednesday service that I attended had us all underline the phrase – “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” – each time it appears in the standard Gospel lesson for the day – Matthew 6:1-18. And so Matthew 6:4, 6:6 and 6:18 are now all underlined in my Bible, and more importantly, they are underscored in my heart.
In light of what Jesus said about being careful about doing religious things that can “be seen by others’ – also repeated 3 times in Matthew 6:2, 6:5 and 6:16 – I found myself struggling, as I often do on Ash Wednesday, with whether or not I should receive the imposition of ashes. It’s hard to reconcile the public display of piety that ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross signals with Jesus’ instructions about not doing religious things to be seen by others. On Ash Wednesday I always feel like I’m doing the very thing that Jesus just told us not to do! And so I’ve come to the place where I will receive the imposition of ashes in worship on Ash Wednesday, and then I will wipe them off before leaving the sanctuary and heading back into the world. In my mind, at least, this is my faithful compromise. It signals my full identification with the Lenten intention of the community of faith without making a show of it in public where it is neither understood nor appreciated, and it winds up being a way for me to show them just how “spiritual” I am.
Years ago I heard stories about big city politicians up north and back east who would mark themselves with an ash cross using the stubs of their own cigars before convening press conferences designed to identify with and get the approval of their Catholic voters. I’m pretty sure that this is what Jesus was criticizing. But in this age of social media, don’t ash smudged forehead “selfies” do the same thing? I’ve seen dozens and dozens of them on Facebook since Wednesday, and with every one of them I have found myself asking, “What motivates this?” “Why would anyone take a picture of themselves with ashes of their foreheads and then publically post it for all to see?”
Memorably, Calvin Miller in one of his books remembered how they sang “Into my Heart” the day he became a Christian.
Into my heart, into my heart, come into my heart, Lord Jesus;
Come in today, come in to stay; Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.
And after years of being a Christian, Calvin observed that his life in Christ was still just so inward that it “defied easy externalization.” More than that, “easy externalization” can actually impede a genuine and vital inward spirituality. In the spiritual teachings of the church of my childhood and youth, I was warned about the sin of “sentimentality,” defined as “being satisfied with pious feelings and beautiful ceremonies without striving to know or obey God’s will.” This is what the Psalm we used on Ash Wednesday was getting at when it said (Psalm 51:16-17) –
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
This is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8). It’s just so easy to do the external thing, and then to celebrate it as if the spiritual assignment has thereby been successfully accomplished. But ash smudged foreheads are easy to achieve. It’s ash smudged hearts that prove to be trickier. And that’s what this season of Lent is really all about. DBS+