by Rev. Alan Combs
On Ash Wednesday, we hear the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” as ashes are placed on our forehead in the sign of a cross in order to remember both that we are mortals, that we are creatures of a Creator. We remember also that our death and our life are wrapped up in the One we are following to the Cross.
One thing I always find so fascinating and helpful on Ash Wednesday is the Gospel lesson for the day. It comes from Matthew 6:1-6, and 16-21, which contains this admonition from Jesus:
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 (Matthew 6:1).
Jesus goes on to describe the various ways that hypocrites practice things like their prayers and fasting out in front of others so that people can see them as pious. Now here’s the curious thing. Jesus gives this caution, and our next move is to put Ashes on our forehead and wear them out in public all day long, so that people can see we them!
It should immediately give us a holy gut check. If we are showing up with this Ashes so that people will see how awesome we are, or, as is often the case, how much better we are than other people, that we might as well not show up at all.
Instead, we wear the ashes publicly to name that we are mortal and that we are sinners.
We don’t wear them to show how much we have it all together. We wear them to show how broken we are, and how much we need Jesus. It’s a public declaration of “I’m not OK” in a world where we try to hide any kind of vulnerability, so that we won’t be perceived as “weak” or having “baggage.”
The ashes are a public declaration of our baggage.
It’s also a public remember that we all will die, which is one of the great subjects we hope to avoid thinking about at all costs, even though in our society death surrounds us.
The ashes are a public declaration that we are all going to die, but that they are in the shape of a cross reminds us that there is One who came to do something about death.
For me, Ash Wednesday’s power comes in how tangible it is. To apply the ashes requires human contact. We feel the texture of the ashes on our forehead. They are just so visible. They make us so visible. And so we guard our hearts as we heart Jesus’ words from Matthew 6 echoing in our hearts and minds.
Rev. Alan Combs is the pastor at Lane Memorial United Methodist Church in Alta Vista, Virginia.