Summary of the Text
Note: This passage appeared as part of the lectionary for Ash Wednesday. It starts with the gospel passage for that day, but attends to the other passages and themes, so it is a combination of the “summary” and “themes for preaching” portions of the guide.
Ash Wednesday. Honestly, one of the most common questions I get about Ash Wednesday is “Why?”
It’s a fair question. Ash Wednesday is not biblical—at least not directly—so it can generate some nervous reactions from staunchly Reformed folks and more non-liturgical friends like Baptists and non-denominationals. I live in the Southeast, where those latter two categories dominate the religious landscape in ways that the more liturgical and church calendar-oriented Catholics and Lutherans do in other parts of the country.
Nevertheless, there are many things that are “non-biblical” that can help us emphasize biblical themes and point us in the right direction in our own walks with Jesus. This is precisely what Ash Wednesday and the greater season of Lent are intended to do. We hear the Spirit’s call to orient ourselves toward Jesus by considering certain themes like penitence, reflection, confession, preparation, and even mourning. Plus, while one could rightly argue that we should always hear the Spirit’s call to heed such practices, people these days need a lot of reminding. So, as much as we love to celebrate Easter, a 40-day notice (well, technically 46) is often appreciated.
Let’s start with the lectionary passage from the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 6:1-6,16-21]. The Matthew passage is ironic because it’s Jesus’s instruction to not flaunt our righteousness in front of others. Nevertheless, we typically wear our ash crosses out in public. Even in lesser-churched areas of the country, it is not unusual to see people out and about on Ash Wednesday afternoon or evening with crosses on their heads. When I lived in Pittsburgh, where the Northeast meets the Midwest, there were many of those aforementioned liturgically inclined traditions who would go to an early mass/service/drive-by ashing and then go to work with crosses on their foreheads. I’d see servers, hair stylists, retail workers, bartenders, etc. with ash crosses.
On the one hand, we could be skeptical and roll with Jesus’s very words in Matthew. We could lament the show of righteousness that overt ashface might imply, and we could wonder whether there is a private devotion to accompany the public expression. This would probably be fair.
On the other hand, there is the positive statement that there are a lot of people around us each day who are more willing than we might think to make a public statement about their faith. Public displays of righteousness in Jesus’s day were common and encouraged and drew social plaudits, thus inviting Jesus’s pointed statements regarding authenticity and private practice. Public statements in our day are not quite as popular.
So, while Jesus’s point is obviously the most important and eternally relevant to consider, there are ways to talk about the pros and the cons here and challenge congregants to both go deeper personally and be willing to do more substantive things publicly. Jesus would certainly pose the same challenge to each of us who wears our ashes in public—or who attempts to claim and demonstrate our faith in public on any day—but in the same sermon he had just said that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. You could even pull from another part of the Sermon on the Mount and say something like, “you have heard it said that it’s good to make public statements, but Jesus says to us to make statements with our lives every day” (or something like that).
The point is that there’s something public to Jesus’s words as well; and smudging our faces in a world obsessed with perfect images could potentially draw people’s interest if we are willing to be appropriately humble. If the ash cross leads to a good conversation with our neighbor, it may be well worn. If it only leads us to some self-promoting selfies on Instagram, then we may want to cut the nuance and get convicted by Jesus’s words.
This tension between public display and private devotion dovetails nicely with Paul’s encouragements in 2 Corinthians. He reminds us that we are Christ’s ambassadors. We don’t put stumbling blocks in others’ ways. “We commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses…” There is some affirmation here that comes with a challenge. The penitent themes of Ash Wednesday are challenging, but if they do not lead to public living, then they are just ashes on the head and easily washed.
Meanwhile, the Isaiah passage [Isaiah 58:1-12] about “true fasting” is an excellent charge to be both bold and authentic. In particular, verses 5-8 give the transition from bold expression to true expression. Isaiah follows this transition by instructing us to call upon God for help. The psalm deepens this request and gives a template for our prayers in the midst of penitence and a desire to be made clean and new, including the proper request to God to make us clean and give us pure hearts. In this way, the bold statement of Ash Wednesday calls us into the season of Lent, giving us some prayers and passages to which we can return again and again.
Finally, Joel may put things most succinctly: “rend your heart and not your garments” (v.13a). Thankfully, the rest of the verse reminds us of God’s steadfastness, “slow to anger and abounding in love.” This reminds us that the Spirit draws us into penitence, confession, etc., not merely as admonition against sin, but as invitation toward grace. Ash Wednesday is the first step in the season that draws us toward Easter, after all, and we take these steps not as a means of self-flagellation but as a reorientation toward the grace we can only know in Jesus. So, if someone does point out our smudgy noggin, then we can talk about being invited by grace and not just indicted by guilt.
While the lectionary sets us up for Ash Wednesday and Lent with these passages—even if there is a bit of dissonance with Jesus’s own words in his context—there are some other passages that we can explore. You can also consider biblical motifs of being marked. Ezekiel 9:1-4, for example, includes God’s instruction to mark the foreheads of those who weep for the sinfulness of their city and their age. Revelation 7:1-4,9-10 distinguishes between the faithful being “sealed” on their heads, as opposed to unfaithful who in Revelation 13 will be “marked” on their hands. In Revelation, there is a definite contrast between being “sealed” and being “marked,” and there is a connection to baptism, at least for those who sprinkle (do Baptists dunk people in ashes on Ash Wednesday?). A good question is, “for what are we being sealed?”
Allen Thompson is senior pastor at Fairview Presbyterian Church in North Augusta, South Carolina. Allen attended Pittsburgh Seminary (M.Div.) and Fuller Seminary (D.Min.) His wife, Kelsey, is a Marriage and Family Therapist, and they have two children.
Allen enjoys golf, hiking, camping, cooking pigs, ice climbing, and live music. He loves to imagine being in the story and culture of the Bible, wondering how we might have responded to God then and how we can follow Jesus now. As an “ideas” person, Allen is passionate about working with others to find out how God is calling us to use the many gifts and resources the Holy Spirit provides.
Allen holds a Doctor of Ministry (Fuller Theological Seminary) and a Master of Divinity (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary).
Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means, not self-pity or remorse, but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look, not backward with regret, but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings, but upwards at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. To repent is to open our eyes to the light. In this sense, repentance is not just a single act, an initial step, but a continuing state, an attitude of heart and will that needs to be ceaselessly renewed up to the end of life.
Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way
There are a lot of good illustrations on the TPW site, but another one that might give an idea toward a mark/scar and long-term rebirth through a brief season of restraint—while also being relevant to ashes—is the story of the Norfolk & Western 611. Built in 1950, the 611 is one of the last steam locomotives used by N&W. Along with its sister locomotives, it was retired in the late 1950’s due to the rise of diesel trains.
After this retirement, its siblings were all scrapped for parts and recycling. But, because the 611 had been in a bad train wreck in 1956 and had taken a few days off to be restored and righted, some wise folks decided to preserve it due to its excellent condition. Initially donated as a museum piece, the 611 has now been restored to full working capacity and operates tourist routes in Virginia and North Carolina as a living model of a bygone era. In other words, because it became a trainwreck covered in ash and mud at precisely the right time, it is now functioning today as a highly celebrated vintage locomotive. It only took a brief period of recognition of faults and flaws and restoration to working order to make its worthiness and value permanently visible.