Yesterday I awoke to snow with a groan, because I had committed to offering Ashes to Go again in between services in front of the parish I serve. Luckily, the snow tapered off by mid-morning, and I got to meet wonderful new people and wave at hundreds more, inviting them to remember that we begin this holy season of self-examination and repentance, come snow or come shine.
The gospel for Ash Wednesday is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus warns against empty shows of piety. It is not lost on many of us that there appears to be some irony in the wearing ashes publicly after we have heard a gospel reading that warns against making a show of religious observance. But Jesus is not talking about the wearing of ashes in our gospel.
Perhaps the key lies in the fact that we ourselves get so caught up in the idea of the exercising of public piety, that we often lose sight of how Jesus defines that piety—not as ashes marked on our foreheads, but on the three vehicles he highlights: giving alms, praying, and fasting, which were the three most common outward practices of an observant Jew in those days. Jesus is about more than appearances. Jesus is reminding us about intent.
When we give alms, we are called to give to others without rules or expectations or demands.
When we pray, we are called to listen even more than we speak, and to place ourselves somewhere where we can hear the voice of our Beloved Savior speaking to us.
When we fast, we are called to clear away distractions to focus on what really matters. Rather than make a game out of our own will-power, we’re actually called to give ourselves over to the will of God in our lives turned outwardly rather than inwardly.
The difference lies in intent. Are we wearing the ashes to gain the attention of others? Or do we wear the ashes to remind ourselves of our mortality, our humble beginnings as dust—and even more importantly, the universality of those humble origins. The reading from Joel urges us to strip away all the masks that separate us from focusing on God when it urges us to “rend our hearts, and not our clothing” as a sign of our repentance over where we have fallen short and sinned in the previous year.
In other words, Jesus calls us to lay down the illusion that we can hide from God, or ourselves and to take the risk to be open and humble before God—and even, harder, to trust in God’s promises. Jesus calls us to strip away barriers, but also the false fronts we put on as a shallow defense against self- knowledge and change. The word translated as “hypocrites” here often in the original Greek had a meaning closer to “play-actors.” In Greek theatre at that time, of course, actors wore exaggerated masks so that even those in the furthest seats could see the expressions. Of course, this meant that the actors’ true selves were hidden from view.
On the one hand, then, to act as a play-actor is to make a mockery through exaggeration, to overact or mug before the audience. It is said that an actor lives for the applause. Jesus’s remarks here also lead us to ask ourselves about the motivation behind our actions. Are we doing religious things so that we can be thought of as good, or doing good things for their own sake?
But if we are honest with ourselves, most of us know an awful lot about wearing masks. And the reality about those masks is that they may fool the people around us, but they certainly don’t fool God. God knows exactly who we are: our hurts, our self-delusion, our false pride and secret fears.
And yet God loves us anyway. Loves us—and encourages us to drop the masks and allow ourselves to really be seen. To be seen—and freed to do the work of discipleship that grounds us in love of God and love of each other.
The marking of our foreheads with ashes comes with a reminder that we are made from the dust, and to the dust we shall return. All of us. But the ashes are also mixed with oil, to remind us that we have each been chosen by God as beloved, anointed to spend these 40 days rededicating ourselves to Christ’s service. And to these two precious elements, we add a third: the shape of the cross.
The two lines that are drawn upon our foreheads with this dust are in the shape of a cross—reminding us of a love that never gives up on us, ever, that calls us to new life even as we remember our bodily mortality. It is on that cross that we are drawn straight into the open embrace of Jesus, with his arms outstretched upon that cross, showing us that Love Always Wins.
So, putting our masks aside, let us humbly take on the loving emblem of the cross—and let our hearts be shaped by the Love that calls us to repentance without ever abandoning us. May these next 40 days be a holy time of renewal, that we may wear and embody the mark of Love throughout our lives.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.