A Homily for Ash Wednesday
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who calls us to repentance and new life in himself. Amen.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others.”
“Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.”
“When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face.”
We read these words from Saint Matthew’s Gospel every year before we begin our Lenten fast.
Minutes later, we kneel down and receive an ashen cross prominently on our foreheads – an obvious and outward sign that we went to church like good little Christians.
It’s the sort of sign that you can spot from several feet away. It’s the sort of thing that Christians make knowing references to – like when a student shows up to an 8am class with their ashes and the professor remarks, “Wow, you got up early. I need to go get smudged during lunch.”
So…what gives? This twelve-hundred year old tradition of the Church may seem to some openly hypocritical – said the guy who stood on a literal street corner praying publicly with his face smudged. Why do something that is, on the face of it, so obviously contradicted by the words of Christ?
As recognizable a symbol as they are, these ashes are not a sign for others. They’re a sign for you, the wearer. Accompanied with the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” they are literally imposed upon you as a physical and visible reminder that we are mortal, that we are fully dependent upon the Triune God for our life.
With our help, sin has invaded the world, and with it, death. We will all die one day and return to the ground. These ashes remind us that our fasting, our piety, our good works, our ash wearing can never undo the basic fact that we are mortal flesh and bone, made up of cosmic debris, and that we will one day decay back into dross.
These ashes inscribe that truth on our brows. But they are not just a smudge – they are traced in the form of a cross, pointing us to the culmination of this Lenten season, pointing us to Christ, the one who was hung upon a tree, died, buried, and descended into the realm of the dead – but has broken the grave’s power over us. We will all die, but in Christ we will rise again.
These ashes are placed upon our foreheads the same way we were anointed with oil at Baptism, pointing us to the watery gate by which we escape death’s grasp by dying to ourselves and rising anew with Christ – those waters with which we will welcome our newest kindred at the Easter Vigil in some forty days’ time.
Wear these ashes not that others may see you and be impressed by your piety nor as a billboard for congregational life but as a reminder for yourself. Remember over these forty days as you prepare to celebrate our Lord’s Passover from death into eternal life that your only hope is in Christ.
And oh, what a sure and glorious hope that is.