A Sermon preached on February 18th, Ash Wednesday, at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenIsaiah 58:1-12, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
There’s something strange about the Ash Wednesday liturgy. We seem to do the opposite of what the readings appointed for the day tell us to do, rather like celebrating Easter Day with the Good Friday readings. According to Isaiah, " Such fasting as you do today,” such as bowing down the head like a bulrush, and lying in sackcloth and ashes, “will not make your voice heard on high.” (58:5) And Jesus tells us that “whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. 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.” (Matthew 6:16-18) Having a cross marked on your forehead with ashes is not exactly a secret is it? So why do we celebrate Ash Wednesday this way?
Our Presiding Bishop. Katherine Jefferts-Schori, offers us one explanation in her annual Lenten message. She said that “the cross that comes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday is a reminder of the cross that’s put there at Baptism. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
So what is this Baptismal sign meant to remind us of exactly? For one thing that we are mortal, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are baptized into Christ’s death and becoming Christ’s own is dangerous and can even be the cause of death. Too often we forget that the cross, especially in its more decorative forms, is a symbol of an instrument of torture and execution. And the ashes we use in this liturgy are made by burning last year’s palm crosses – themselves a reminder of how quickly Jesus’ death followed his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and how quickly the same people who cried Hosanna, were ready to shout out “crucify him” instead. The 21 Coptic Christians recently massacred by the so-called Islamic State died because of the Cross of Baptism on their foreheads, they died as witnesses – or martyrs – to Christ. But they still died in hope. Whether our death is untimely and cruel, which we all pray will not be the case, or peaceful and in due course, the promise of Baptism is that by sharing in Christ’s death we also share in his glorious resurrection.
The second thing the sign of the cross also reminds us of, is what we promised at our Baptism: To continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. To persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self, and to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. This we promised to do every day and all day – but we can and should still put a particular focus on these promised during the 40 days of Lent.
Coming back to the Presiding Bishop’s Lenten message: “Lent is an ancient tradition of solidarity and preparation for those who look forward to Baptism at the Easter Vigil. It has always been a time for prayer and study, fasting, self-denial, and alms-giving, sharing what we have with those who do not have. Prayer is an opportunity to reflect on who walks with us in the desert, who brings light into the world. Study is an opportunity to do the same kinds of things looking at the history of our tradition, where have human beings found light and direction in their journey through this world. Fasting and self-denial are an inward-reflection on what it is that keeps us in the dark, or what it is that keeps us directionless, or that keeps us overly self-focused. And it becomes an invitation to turn outward and share what we have with those who have not.”
Turning outward and sharing is, as Isaiah also reminds us, not an option. To fast and to neglect the poor perverts religion and ritual. The fast that God chooses is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (58:6-7)
These are true and sincere acts of piety. We pray and fast and give alms not for our glory or reward, but out of gratitude to God for the gift of new life through his Son given to us in Baptism - out of joyful obedience. The treasures we store up in heaven and in our hearts, because they should be the same place, are righteousness, loving-kindness, generosity, and peace. The forty days of Lent are our chance to focus on filling our heart with these treasures. That will bring us joy and will be a source of joy for our God. And what greater reward can there be than the joy and love of God?