[I actually began this post last year. Now is the time and all that…]
Every year the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday (Matt. 6.1-6, 16-21) in the Episcopal and Revised Common Lectionary strikes me as a bit ironic. In the liturgical traditions that practice lenten abstinence and the placing of the ash upon the brow do these words not seem to challenge these very practices?
Jesus said, “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.”
Now I entered the Episcopal Church because I came to feel the power of the liturgy, lectionary, and formal worship. But every time I read this passage on Ash Wednesday I hear the charges of Pharisaism all over again. Upon reflection I can think of a couple of good reasons for this apparent contradiction. One is, of course, that practice has developed in a different manner than that intended by the liturgists who chose the lectionary. Not all practices are the same, however since I know of other churches that have towels in the narthex so that worshippers can wipe the ashes off their foreheads before heading out into the world.
On the other hand, perhaps this tension between our practice of imposing ashes before everyone and the meaning and intent of Jesus’ message in this passage is intentional. Intended to bring to our mind the very conscious act of mourning and repentance that is the wearing of ashes (I notice we do not rend clothes any more) while also warning us against the hypocrisy of feeling justified by these actions.
Certainly I can think of no better Gospel passage to begin this period of repentance and reflection. While living in New Orleans, a very Catholic city, it was extremely common not only to see many ashen foreheads on this day but to also have discussions throughout Lent about what you might have given up. Heck, even Mike and Mike of ESPN talk about what Golic is giving up for Lent. The very fact that I have made public on this blog that I am attempting to write these reflections as part of my discipline could be seen (and probably is) in conflict with Jesus’ words. But like so many things I think it is about attitude.
If others know of what we do, whether charity or fasting, prayer or preaching, why do they know? Have we told them so that we can receive congratulations or commiseration? Or have we asked some who are close to us to help us remain accountable to our commitments?
This is at the core of the last passage cited above. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where are our priorities, where is our focus? If we take up the challenge of Lent do we do it because others have urged us to and expect it from us (and we don’t want to feel left out or considered a heathen now do we?) or because we seek to be formed by God so as to better receive the pardon and forgiveness that Jesus offers?