“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.” – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Why do we do this? Why do we come together every year, and begin the season of Lent, by taking ashes and marking ourselves with the sign of the cross? What is it supposed to represent or symbolize?
In the Jewish tradition and in many other traditions too, the placement of ashes on a person’s body represented a spirit of humbleness in the presence of God that comes from recognizing our own human mortality and our brokenness. It was a way to symbolically profess what was in a person’s heart. And so it is with us, too. When we specifically place ashes on ourselves in the shape of the cross, we’re doing several things.
The first thing we’re doing is being part of a tradition that goes back almost to the very beginning of the faith. So by continuing this tradition we’re making a connection with all the community of believers, all the faithful of every time and place, similar to the way we connect with them through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. But what we’re doing is more than just connecting with tradition.
When we mark ourselves with ashes, we’re making a public expression of our mortality and our humility, but when we do so making the sign of the cross, we’re making that profession specific to what we profess about Jesus Christ. We’re not only recognizing our brokenness, but we’re making a statement, to ourselves and to all who can see us, who our Lord and Savior is – who we’re professing our complete loyalty to. From the standpoint of humility, we’re saying that we’re willing to publicly look a little odd, with this funny-looking smudge on our foreheads for other people to see, in the name of professing the Lordship of Christ to our family, and friends, and neighbors. It’s a way of showing solidarity with the millions of Christians around the world who profess their loyalty to Christ at great danger, even to the point of being killed for their profession of faith. We’re blessed to live in a place where our life isn’t at stake because we follow Christ, and in some ways maybe it’s too easy for us to be Christians. Being willing to receive that silly little smudge, that will last only for this day, is at least one very small way to show that we’re serious about our faith, and being willing to at least put up with the smallest of consequences, of people looking at us funny, in the name of Christ. It’s a sign of us willing to show that we’re not ashamed of our faith.
But to say that we aren’t ashamed of our faith isn’t to say that we’re full of pride. We don’t mark ourselves with ashes in an attempt to say that we’re better than other people. We’re not doing it to call attention to what good or pious or enlightened people we are. We aren’t doing it for the self-serving reasons of the hypocrites Jesus talked about in this evening’s gospel passage. We aren’t doing it to call attention to us at all. We’re doing it to call attention to the one who died on the cross that we’re marked with, the one who died in order to show God’s love for all people. And we’re doing it with ashes, the timeless, universal symbol of humility. It’s customary during Lent to fast, or to “give up” something. If we don’t give up anything else, let’s allow receiving the ashes to be a sign of us giving up our pride or ego or vanity or being embarrassed to publicly profess our loyalty to Christ.
So I invite you to receive this mark tonight. Receive this funny little smudge. Receive it to connect with all the faithful across time. Receive it to show that you’re at least willing to face public curiosity or ridicule in the name of your Lord. Receive it to show your thoughtfulness and humility, as you prepare to walk together with Christ during this season of Lent, on his cross-bound journey that has to lead to Good Friday and crucifixion and death, before it could get to Easter and resurrection and life. Amen.