Ash Wednesday: It’s Not What, But Why

Ash Wednesday Scriptures:

Joel 2:12-17

Psalm 51 or Psalm 103

Hebrews 12:1-14 and 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Gospel : Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; or Luke 18:9-14

Ash Wednesday, the Start of Lent

On Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, it’s time to take stock of the truths about ourselves that don’t sit well in our guts. There’s one truth in particular that leaves the people of today’s world most uneasy: the universe does not revolve around you. Psalm 103:14, like Ecclesiastes 3:20, reminds us of what we were at the start. Psalm 51 says that we’ve gotten all fouled up. Amos writes about the two-faced trickery of his generation. Our self-obsessed era is no different. We were made very good, but we keep mucking it up. Because you’re not all that good, God demands that you be truthful about it. God says ‘deal with it’. (After all, God did; look at that cross.) Many of us turn to religious behavior in order to deal with it, but alas. There’s no magical solution. Good thinking leads to good excuses. Even by doing good things, you can’t ‘do’ your way around it.

Most of all, we can’t pretend our way above it. What others think means nothing to God. In Matthew 6, Jesus calls on all people to be at least as spiritual as we seem, instead of seeming more spiritual than we are. How do you follow that call?

  • not by wearing your forehead ashes for days, protecting it like a badge of holiness;
  • not by fasting for Lent so that others see how holy you are;
  • not by taking the role of Simon the Cyrene in the stations of the Cross, so others can see you bearing a holy weight;
  • not by ‘going Celtic’ to be devotionally ‘hip’;
  • not by writing Lenten devotionals for the Web or Facebook, where thousands can ooh and aaah over your supposed ‘wisdom’;
  • not by filling your cubicle walls with photos of all sorts of charitable work you’re somehow involved with;
  • not by copping Francis of Assisi’s dress code;
  • not by making sure your eyes are red with tears or your mascara runs during devotions with others;
  • not by crossing yourself so often that you’ll develop carpal tunnel;
  • not by name-dropping the Desert Fathers;
  • not by copiously blog-journaling throughout Lent to draw the instant-message crowd;
  • not by chanting Gregorian throughout the work day;
  • not by proving how long you can wear sackcloth without scratching;
  • not by showing off the wear holes in your prayer shawl and the dog-ears in your Bible;
  • not by being the first on your block to go through the whole Easter Vigil in worship at the altar.

The God who sees all isn’t fooled for a second. What does Jesus say? ‘You’ve got your reward now — the attention, the short-term praise. But that’s all.’ Those who seek to be treated highly will be brought down, and their deeds turn to ash. Those who get real about their humble place before God and others will be treated highly. A simple, helpful rule: if you love the Jesus of the cross and of the empty tomb, then don’t draw attention to yourself or boast about how good you are – draw it to Jesus by actually following Him.

If we really were what we pretend to be, others could see something of what God’s kingdom is like. That Kingdom is what people need to see.

Father, please help me to remember who I am. And please help burn into me the truth that I will die, and Your Son already has — and He shows me that death is not the end of it. Amen.

Bob Longman

A challenge: take up a devotional practice, and do it in a way nobody can know about.

(More stuff throughout the season. Stay tuned.)

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