It’s a little ironic, isn’t it?
Lent is perhaps the most public time of fasting of the year. I know that I have often used the question “Are you giving anything up for Lent?” as a prideful way of ensuring that I in turn will be asked – thereby allowing me to show off my spiritual gusto for attempting to give up something so difficult.
And, of course, we can’t forget the very public way in which we lament our inability to consume our chosen abstention. From Facebook statuses mourning our desire for chocolate to frequent whining over how difficult it is to find yet another vegetarian recipe, we frequently put our struggle with fasting on display.
Ash Wednesday is part of this, too. Two years ago my wife and I had to make a quick stop at the convenience store on the way home from our church’s Ash Wednesday service. There we were with already smudged ashy crosses on our brow as we went through the checkout line, catching awkward glances from the cashier. The whole thing felt a little public. When I suggested to our current church’s elders that we add an Ash Wednesday service there was more than a little consternation about the way that the ashen crosses had been a public display of piety in childhood neighborhoods.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday this year is from Matthew 6. This is where Jesus tells us,
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting… But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen” (Matthew 6:16-18).
It’s ironic that we begin this season of public piety with a reading that reminds us not to make a public display of our fasting.
At the core of this passage from Matthew is a call to humility. Earlier in the reading, Jesus says,
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret” (Matthew 6:1-4).
Humility is at the center of Ash Wednesday. As the ashes are imposed, we hear, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday is a powerful reminder that one day we will die. A reminder that our time on this earth is relatively short. A call to examine ourselves and repent as we prepare for the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In other words, Ash Wednesday should turn us away from ourselves.
By all means, I encourage you to fast for Lent. I encourage you to attend an Ash Wednesday service. But as you hear those words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” may the words of Jesus also echo in your mind: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-20).