In the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, Matthew offers a tension that can seem a bit weird about practising faith in secret, when today we are imposing ashes. Some people who go to Ash Wednesday worship at noon go about their days with a visible cross on their foreheads. One thing that helps is knowing a bit about the background of the gospel reading.
Ronald Allen, Bible commentator, describes how Matthew is not distinguishing between a Christian group and a Jewish group as the story often goes when told in churches. Instead Matthew is describing two different Jewish groups that are closely related. While Matthew criticizes Pharisees it could be that he was part of a different group of Pharisees. From a Lutheran perspective we might imagine two different Lutheran denominations having a theological disagreement which we can related to. One problem is that over the centuries Matthew’s critique of Pharisees has taken on anti-Semitic tones whereby Christians criticize Jews. This dichotomy doesn’t make sense given Matthew himself was Jewish. So today we need to do a bit of work to understand the divisions.
What really seems to get Matthew worked up is what he perceives as certain religious leaders using expressions of faith to further their own positions of power. Matthew gives three examples: alms giving, praying, and fasting. The problem with each of these three is not the things themselves, but rather the way they are expressed. Alms giving, praying, and fasting are all faithful expressions of Jewish life and prescribed for Jesus followers.
The faithful purpose of alms giving is part of sacrificial giving, building up the community as part of the realm of God. Not for drawing attention to oneself or currying favour through giving.
The faithful purpose of praying is about being in right relationship with God, building up the community of faith. Not for publicly demonstrating piety and promoting oneself.
So too the faithful purpose of fasting is a preparation for being attuned to God’s will, to be open to possibilities of a coming realm of God, to turn from oneself towards others. Not to demonstrate to others one’s faithfulness.
In this light we could frame receiving the imposition of ashes. It’s not to impress others. It’s night anyways so not many people are going to see them. But rather we receive the imposition of ashes reorienting us towards God. Away from whatever castle building we might be caught up in, whether it’s career, finances, reputation, etc. At the end of the day we are all mortal. We are reminded that we too will die. And yet we find meaning as children of God tending the garden together. We find meaning in mortality through community, connected together by Jesus. We are not triumphal
A story about tending the garden. Consider all the community gardens that people grow in their backyards that the Shelbourne Community Kitchen makes use of. These are not all big gardens. Many are hidden away in people’s backyards. But together the produce these gardeners grow makes a big difference in the lives of hundreds of people each year, given access to fresh food. The same people are also offered planters they can grow on stoops and balconies. They are taught how to prepare food in ways that are interesting and widen the community, sharing food with others. The example of the Kitchen is one close to home, given our relationship with their work, and people’s support for them here at Church of the Cross.
Wrapping up, remember Jesus encouraging us to go out and build community. Give alms, pray, and fast if we choose in order to reorient us away from ourselves towards God and neighbour. Receive the imposition of ashes as a sign that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Something that doesn’t centre us, but rather God’s love for each one of us. Amen.