Sermon for Wednesday, February 17, 2021 || Ash Wednesday || Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
There has always been a tension on Ash Wednesday between the chosen biblical readings and the liturgical action of receiving ashes. In the reading from the prophet Isaiah, which Ann shared earlier, we read that God isn’t all that impressed with fasts that include lying in sackcloth and ashes but do not include working to dismantle injustice. In the Gospel lesson I just read, Jesus lambasts the “hypocrites” who disfigure their faces while they are fasting in order that others might see and applaud them. The incongruity between these two lessons and the action we normally take next has always seemed strange to me – and I know I’m not alone in this because I’ve often fielded questions about it from parishioners.
But today we are not engaging in the liturgical action of receiving the ashes. I’m of two minds about this. Part of me sighs wistfully at another thing in a long line of things that we can’t do safely because of the pandemic. The other part of me is glad for an opportunity to share an Ash Wednesday service free of the ashes in order that we might focus on something other than the admittedly weird act of scraping soot on our foreheads.
The tension I mentioned before between the readings and the ashes exists, I think, because the readings warn us against an all too easy effect of the ashes. It’s so easy to make the ashes into nothing more than a performance. When I was a kid, I liked to wear my ashes to school so others would see them. I think I may have been a little smug about it. I didn’t grasp the symbolic understanding of the ashes – that we would wear them to remember our own fleetingness, our own own sinfulness, and, thankfully, God’s love which encompasses and reconciles both. The ashes were just something that my classmates might look at with odd expressions on their faces. Rather than being a mark of humility, they became a mark of pride (which is, sort of, the opposite effect than we’re going for).
It all hinges on the word Jesus uses in the Gospel lesson: hypocrites. We all know what it means to be a hypocrite. We’ve all been hypocrites at one time or another. We’ve all said one thing and then done another. But I wonder if Jesus might not have been using the word in its original meaning. In ancient Greece, a hypocrite was an actor, a stage player. The word literally means “an interpreter from underneath,”* which makes sense when you remember ancient Greek actors wore masks to signal the roles they were playing. So when Jesus says, “Don’t be like the hypocrites,” I wonder if he meant, “Don’t be like actors, who are simply performing a role.”
My elementary school-aged self was definitely wearing his ashes performatively. Sometimes, I wonder if now my hair is the way it is so I can’t possibly keep ashes on my forehead, can’t possibly fall into the performative trap.
This is the trap the prophet Isaiah speaks against in the first lesson today, speaking from God’s perspective:
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? […]
All of this is mere performance if it is not accompanied by what comes next. Isaiah says that God has no time for fasts that include only outward signs, but do not include inward and societal transformation. Isaiah goes on to say:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
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…
The ashes serve their purpose when they galvanize us to witness our own sinfulness and God’s great love and then decide to recommit ourselves to God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. But we don’t need the ashes to renew this commitment. We need only embrace the stirring wind of the Holy Spirit, who is even now blowing on the embers of our hearts’ fires and stoking the flames of our discipleship and our calling into God’s mission.
In a few minutes, we will share together the litany of penitence, a special set of confessional prayers that help us discern how we have fallen into sin – how we have distorted our relationships with God, with each other, and with creation. The litany is not designed to make us feel bad about ourselves, but to give us language that we can use to understand our place in the sinful systems of the world. The litany helps us become clear-eyed about how we live, about how our lives contribute to the challenges the world faces. The good news is that, if our lives contribute to death-dealing problems, they can surely also contribute to life-giving solutions. And the more we partner with God and each other to confess away our blindness of death-dealing systems, the more we move toward a new way of life that helps dismantle them, that brings the reign of our just and loving God closer to earth.
We may not have ashes on our foreheads this evening. But we have fire in our hearts.
Thanks be to God.