[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so 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.
19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
I am struck this year by the juxtaposition of the ashes in my hand and on our foreheads with the ashes of destruction in Ukraine. We put on our ashes here, a smudge to give us a concrete reminder of death, while others in our world are fleeing their neighborhood covered in ash. It is enough to make me want to throw up my hands in despair. But though ashes may bring us to despair, it is the good news of what God can do with ashes that is most important to remember.
Ashes inherently represent the passing of something vital – a tree which once grew tall, a house destroyed by fire, all that is left of a corpse after the flesh has been burned away. Ashes often from the burned palms of last year’s Palm Sunday carry the reminder that the grandiose hopes of triumphal parades can so easily turn to betrayal, persecution, and burial.
On Ash Wednesday, as people turn from their daily lives to observe the start of Lent, that season of penitence and preparation, the minister takes ashes, and draws the sign of the cross one forehead at a time, saying the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” Evoking at the same time our inescapable death and the story of our creation from Genesis, from the very dust God created us.
It is always a bit amazing how many people are eager to receive ashes. You wouldn’t think that we need or are eager to hear reminders of mortality. Reminders of our own mortality and the mortality of others have haunted us. Loved ones die. Our own bodies show signs of wear. We live in the midst of broken situations and broken communities, and we never have to look far to see decay and corruption. We live with both rumors of wars and actual wars right now. We not only focus our attention on the innocent suffering in Ukraine, but the innocent suffering that is happening in Russia, as those in power forget their compassion for their own people in order to gain more power for themselves.
The ashes not only remind us of death, but of new life. In the sign of the cross, we are reminded of God’s victory over sin, death, and the devil in Jesus Christ. This same sign is etched on our foreheads in baptism, promising forgiveness, grace, and new life. Not just once, but each day that we are able to remember who we are and whose we are. God continues to bring life out of death – giving us a new heart when our old heart has grown cold and indifferent.
It is this new heart, turned towards God, reoriented towards God’s justice for the hungry, the suffering, the afflicted, and homeless, that rises from the ashes. This compassion which sees all people whether in our country or abroad as worthy of our continued efforts to proclaim God’s kingdom come. The desperation we feel at the enormity of suffering we see around us; we cannot overcome on our own. The despair that creeps in when we witness the innocent perish and children go hungry is not wrong – but it is not God’s final word. The will of God is that we might acknowledge that desperation, and feel the despair – and turn towards God
When I despair at what little good I can possibly do in my corner of the world, it is good to remember the good that others are doing in their little corner. While I am here, others are called to work on the world stage, securing money and resources for those in crisis. While I am here, others welcome refugees and provide sanctuary. While I despair here, God works through other people and other governments and other agencies to get relief and aid where it is needed most. While I despair, God is still at work. Even at work to bring me through that despair and pull me closer towards the compassion and action I can concretely accomplish here.
Our identity as Christians is to be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets, offering food to the hungry and satisfying needs. Surveyors of the ruins and ashes, proclaiming love and hope to those in need – not out of duty, not out of recognition, not out of despair, but out of hope – for the hope we have recognized as God at work even in our own little corners of the world.
And that, brothers and sisters, is the hope that is smeared in ash on our foreheads, that God’s love has reached through our sinfulness, through the grim shadow of death, to the dust and the ashes of human life. We may be dust, but dust that we are, we are loved. As Paul writes, we are accounted dead… and yet terrifically alive. We have nothing, and yet by God’s love we have it all. Nothing in this world, even death, can separate you from God’s love in Jesus Christ. That is the secret scratched in ashes and imposed upon our foreheads. Nothing can separate you from God’s love. And God
desperate and deadly of situations to bring new life.
( Prayer by Cole Arthur Riley, speaker, teacher, and author of This Here Flesh)