Ash Wednesday. I always tell myself and fellow clergy that they don’t come for the homily. They come for the ashes. With coronavirus, will they come at all? Self-administration of ashes? We'll be online only - so we'll ask folks to find a little dirt and apply it, asking them to ponder that we come from dust / dirt, and we'll return there too. If people come where you are, or if you're only virtual, I still love the great reflection Martin Sheen offered when interviewed by Krista Tippett: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say Here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”
Matthew 6 is perfect yet terribly odd for Ash Wednesday. Jesus tells us not to practice our piety visibly (v. 1), and not to disfigure our faces but to wash them (v. 16) – on the very day we disfigure our faces publicly. Nobody at my place though is showing off, sporting ashes for the rest of the day. If anything, they’ll get some strange stares at the store on the way home.
“My richest gain I count but loss.” Lent is the season to reassess what has value, what doesn’t, how much we offer up to God. Do we urge our people to embark on a fast? It’s not dieting. It’s not being glum and feeling sorry for ourselves. It’s solidarity with those who aren’t choosing to fast. It’s weaning ourselves from dependencies on things. It’s an awakening to where our treasure is.
Where are the “Take the Bible literally!” people when it comes to “Do not lay up treasure on earth”? We prudently save, we check our retirement portfolios, we pay off the house. No use castigating the people, or ourselves. It’s a mark of our brokenness, our desperate need for the true God. The ashes are lie that mark on Cain’s forehead. It’s guilt, and grace.
Two more items while we’re on Matthew 6. Jesus says “When you pray,” not “If you pray” – and he was assuming 3 set times of prayer as was common Jewish practice then and now. When Will Willimon was Dean of Duke Chapel, he told about a Muslim student who asked him, “Why don’t the Christian students ever pray?” He obviously observed the 5 set daily times for prayer in Islam, and was puzzled that he never ever saw Christians stopping to pray. It’s a judgment call whether you can mention this to your people. I think it’s compelling, and inviting – but some folks have such potent, irrational anti-Muslim feelings that they’ll shut down on you.
And then Jesus talks about “reward,” shunning earthly reward, but implying quite clearly there are rewards, ultimate rewards to the life of faith. I for one downplay this, remembering a very smart college student who asked me if he could become a Christian if he didn’t believe in eternal life. His angle was he wanted to follow Jesus just because it was good, right, noble and true, not to secure any prize for himself. I admire that – but quite clearly the Gospels and Epistles lay out for us fabulous, unspeakably fantastic rewards, or ultimate realities, for those who believe.
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