Ash Wednesday C: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Ps 103:8-14; 2 Cor 5:20-6:10; Mt 6:1-6, 16-21
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Before the Super Bowl started Sunday night, I saw televised two very different images. One was a commercial for Dr. Dre’s Beats in which Cam Newton voiced a prayer monologue regarding his hopes for the end of the Carolina Panthers season. The other was a camera angle from behind of Peyton Manning sitting quietly with his head bowed in the locker room. There was a marked disparity in the two images for me and I can’t help thinking of them within the context of the Ash Wednesday readings and liturgy.
We live in a world that frequently displays its personal piety”prayers at restaurants, fish symbols with a cross inside stuck to the tailgates of our SUVs, and plenty of bumper stickers. I taut my personal piety everywhere I go with stickers on the back of my car that say things like, Don’t ask me where I stand, ask me where I kneel or and also with y’all (though rare is the non-Episcopalian who gets that one). The cross is not just for jewelry any more, its become a designer feature on shirts, hats, even jeans. We proudly display our piety everywhere we go. It’s cool to be a Christian. Sometimes I wonder if our pious displays say more about our desire to be included than they say about the claim that Jesus has on our lives.
There are three acts of piety that Jesus appears to claim as righteousness and they are alms-giving, prayer, and fasting. Not only are these the mark of the righteous, but they also seem to garner a heavenly reward. But there is a catch if you will.
You cannot be ostentatious in your practice of piety”don’t let anyone see you giving alms to the poor; go into your room and shut the door to pray; don’t look all gloomy or disfigure your face when you fast. Don’t call attention to your piety. For if you practice your righteousness before people, to be seen by them¦then you have no reward.
There are a few things that jump out to us when we read this passage. Jesus is not giving us a prescriptive. Nowhere does he say, giving, prayer, and fasting are what we have to do. Instead, he simply grants that faithful people rightly do these things. This passage is not about telling us to do these things; Jesus assumes we already are doing these things. No, this passage is not telling us what to do. It is telling us how to do what we already are doing in a righteous manner.
Righteousness seems to be less about actions and more about a state of mind when the action is performed. That state of mind seems to say more about the motivation and sustainability of an action than the action itself communicates. It is a great purpose to end hunger or fight poverty, but to attempt that purpose because you desire recognition is different than to attempt that purpose because you are following the call of Christ. Acting in a way designed to secure the notice of others does not draw you deeper into a relationship with Christ or with others”it sets you apart.
When praying or fasting, we are warned not to act like a hypocrite. Hypocrite is a Greek term meaning stage actors. It did not carry the negative connotations of sneaky deception we associate with it today. It meant more like two faced because the actor wore a mask”literally two faces. His identity was hidden behind the mask such that he presented a false identity. The word hypocrite in our reading today”do not be like the hypocrites”suggests a degree of pretense, a false godliness, in that practicing your piety in order that others might see it is demonstrating a false practice and thus a false identity as you try to prove you are someone you are not.
We cannot falsely practice our piety or present a false identity and achieve a heavenly reward not because God does not want to give it to us, but because in order to be open to the heavenly reward, in order to receive the kingdom of God, we must have a proper orientation. Anyone who has ever set their GPS or asked Siri for directions before backing out of their driveway knows that orientation matters, if you go left instead of right you may soon discover the little blue line is behind you and you will have to quickly reorient yourself in order to reach your destination. Fortunately, Siri is never without prompts for proper directions and neither is God. When we pay attention to the still, small voice within us, we can have no doubts as to our motivations. God’s guidance will bring us to our heavenly reward, but we must be properly oriented.
That is why we don’t come forward today to receive ashes on our forehead as if they were a gold star sticker given to us for some sort of religious achievement. The reception of ashes is about our humility, not our piety. The action of receiving ashes is our admission to God and ourselves that we are not worthy of the salvation he offers us and yet, in some strange and inexplicable way, we are worthy of nothing less”that is why we will not simply be marked with darkness but will also be filled with light in the taking of communion, in the reception of Jesus’ body and blood in the elements of bread and wine.
Darkness and light”the tension that is ever playing out in our own lives, the tension we will celebrate in our liturgy today, the tension we will embrace as we move deeper into Lent and discover that it is in both the darkness and the light that we find holiness. It is in the wrestling with ourselves, with our motivations, with our orientation that will bring us face to face with God; that will bring us to our heavenly reward.
The Church invites you to the observance of a holy Lent today. There are many ways in which that observance may take place in your life”but of all the various and individual ways that each of us will practice in observing Lent this year, there are some commonalities we need to incorporate if Lent is to be more than a series of gold stars earned each day. Whatever you decide to give up or take on do it with awareness and self-examination, being mindful and intentional as to your motivation and experience. Don’t give up chocolate just because you want to lose five pounds or because it seems the thing to do, make your chocolate fast an opportunity to grow in faithfulness and strengthen your relationship with God and then sit with that intentionally throughout Lent. If you are reading or meditating on God’s holy Word make that an opportunity not to simply know Scripture but to strengthen a relationship with God”the Scriptures don’t just tell us about God, they are a conversation we have with God to draw us into greater love and knowledge of God.
Of all the seasons in the church year, Lent is the season of practicing our piety, not so that others will see it as the hypocrites do, but as those with deep faith who have thrown off the shackles of this earthly existence so as to orient ourselves toward the cross, toward the empty tomb, to the hope of salvation that is our heavenly reward.