I can remember, back when I was in elementary school, seeing the Catholic kids who had gone either to early or noontime Ash Wednesday services and then shown up for class. They’d have these ash marks on their foreheads and I thought how dorky they looked! I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t want to have that on my forehead!” I was dorky enough without giving the other Protestant kids another reason to make fun of me.
Years later, when I attended seminary, the Imposition of Ashes happened during the chapel service on Ash Wednesdays every year. One Ash Wednesday, I missed the service. Everybody else in all my classes had the mark of the cross on their foreheads for the rest of the day. There I was with a naked forehead! I felt like a dork for not having ash marks on my forehead then.
In both instances, I was more concerned about what others thought of me than about where I was in my relationship with God.
In His words to us tonight, Jesus has a few things to say to people like me, people more concerned with appearances than with the substance of their lives and their relationships with God. Here’s a sampling:
“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...In other words, Jesus says, no show-dog religion in His Kingdom!
“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...
“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...
“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...”
Lent, which we begin tonight, is a time of spiritual renewal. As we prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter, Lent, this humanly-created season, is designed to help give us something to really celebrate when Easter Sunday morning rolls around.
Tonight, we agree together to use the next forty days to crucify the things that separate us from Christ and in doing so, to experience the birth of a new self.
Or at least, to begin to catch sight of the new selves we who follow Jesus will one day be.
Those new people God is making of us won’t worry about making good impressions on others or whether we look like dorks or not. Our new selves will be motivated simply to respond to the free gifts of forgiveness, life, and love that God gives to those who surrender to Jesus.
In a movie called, The Apostle, Robert Duvall plays a Southern preacher who revitalizes a church in a Louisiana town. I won’t go into the whole plot. But in the scene that I remember most fondly, Duvall and others in the church bought bags and bags of groceries for people who couldn’t afford them, then went to their houses, placed the food on their front porches, knocked at their doors, and then ran like crazy to avoid detection. Every time they ran away, they had to stifle giggles with each stride.
That scene conveyed something of the joy that belongs to those who respond to God’s love for them with acts of service and sacrifice, not to be noticed, but just to tell God, “Thank You.”
Quaker theologian Richard Foster is right, I think, when he says that every hidden act of service to others and of devotion to Jesus Christ, “sends ripples of joy and celebration through any community of people.” During our ‘forty days to servanthood,’ you and I are going to explore and I hope experience, what it means to be a people who send those ripples of godly joy and Christ-rooted celebration through this community!
When we come forward for the imposition of the ashes on Ash Wednesday, we...
- acknowledge that without Jesus’ grace and our faith in Him, we would stand under God’s condemnation;
- that we’re completely dependent on God; and
- that repentant, we can turn away from the sin that would kill us and turn to the God Who loves to give us life.
Dorky or not, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” is an honest statement that we make about ourselves tonight. But we also confess our faith that all who believe in Jesus Christ will rise again to live with God forever! Like Job in the Old Testament, we can say that after all our skin has been destroyed, our own eyes will see God!
Tonight, we wear the ashes and we remember both our mortality and the resurrection that belongs to all who follow Jesus.