A Sermon preached on Ash Wednesday March 1st 2017 at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenIsaiah 58:1-12, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
While we probably all have been guilty of doing exactly the opposite of what God and Jesus tell us to do, it rarely seems so obvious as today:
In just a moment, I am going to mark a visible sign on your forehead – a cross of ashes. And yet, we just heard Jesus say: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” And also, “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.” (Matthew 6:1, 16)
So, why are we doing this? Is it to practice our piety in public, as a show? Is it to look dismal? I hope not. In fact I want you to receive your cross of ashes with joy, and not with a dismal look on your face, and I will explain why in a moment.
But first I want to unpack Jesus’ criticism, which is actually similar to Isaiah’s. What both of them can’t stand is hypocrisy: saying one thing, and doing another. Isaiah passes on to Israel God’s message that fasting while oppressing, quarrelling, and fighting is not the sort of fast that will be heard “on high.” (Isaiah 58:3-4) Humbling yourself just on a fast day, wearing sackcloth and ashes just when the calendar calls for it, is not acceptable to the Lord. The fast God chooses, the fast God appreciates is what we do and stand for 365 days a year: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke ….. to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them.” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Just last week, Pope Francis is supposed to have suggested that it's better to be an atheist than a bad Christian, at least that’s a simplistic and not fully accurate newspaper headline summary of his sermon during morning Mass. What he said was: “It is a scandal to say one thing and do another. That is a double life. There are those who say, ‘I am very Catholic, I always go to mass, I belong to this and that association.’ But they should also say ‘my life is not Christian, I don’t pay my employees proper salaries, I exploit people, I do dirty business, I launder money, [I lead] a double life’” “‘There are many Catholics who are like this and they cause scandal. How many times have we all heard people say ‘if that person is a Catholic, it is better to be an atheist’?” 
And this is what Jesus is criticizing too: using the outward signs of piety, without action and without the transformation of our hearts and minds that our piety – prayer, fasting, worship, scripture, meditation – are supposed to bring. Pretending to fast – or to be particularly strict in fasting - by putting on a dismal face, presumably as a sign of the pangs of hunger, is equally pernicious. It would be better to eat normally and share your bread with the hungry.
As I don’t believe you are hypocrites and I know you are not putting on a show of piety, what are the ash crosses for?
According to the prayer that I will say over the ashes before using them, the ashes are to be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence. Mortality and repentance are two things we don’t like much nowadays. Either we hide death in hospitals and try and delay it as long as possible with the help of all our machines and medicines. Or at the other extreme we want full control over the when and how we die. As Christians, we acknowledge that this life has an end. Christ’s victory over death is realized in the promise of new and renewed life for us and all creation. Yet as Christians we also rejoice in this life, which is gift from God, and try live it in the best way possible. That is one thing your ash cross stands for.
Repentance is also not very popular. We do not like to acknowledge our mistakes, instead we double down, we create facts to prove we are right, we blame other people and in doing so we destroy relationships or worse. As Christians we must be willing to repent. We know that we are sinners, but we also know that our God forgives those who truly repent. Repentance is not a sad and dismal act, but really another occasion for rejoicing. Through the act of repentance we are repairing and renewing our relationship both with that other human being we have harmed or hurt, and with God. That is the second thing your ash cross stands for.
But there is one more reason why should receive your cross of ashes with joy. The prayer over the ashes starts with the words: “Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth.” God created each and every one of us with a purpose: To love and to be loved. To be God’s stewards of that creation and all created creatures, to love and care for the world and one another.
To sum up, your ash cross is not some outward sign of a piety that has not reached your hearts. It is a sign that we accept that we are mortal, but still rejoice in this life, as we look forward to the next. . It is a sign that we accept that we are sinners and in need of forgiveness, but know that we rejoice in God’s love. . It is a sign that we accept and rejoice in our role as God’s partners in God’s mission for this world and all who live on it.
If that is our understanding of the cross of ashes then we are definitely not guilty of doing the opposite of what God and Jesus tell us to do. On the contrary, we are doing exactly what we have been created and called for. Come and get your sign!