Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent, which begins the long 40-day journey to Easter (not counting Sabbaths). I barely remember celebrating Easter growing up. I never heard of Lent until I was much older. Today I can’t imagine the experience of Easter without the long, arduous journey of repentance and confession the church calls Lent. And for the first time I am officiating two Ash Wednesday services in my church in Hollywood. This is new for us. Some will say that this is not biblical (I’m not even going to get into that here). Others will say that this is foreign to our tradition. To that I would say that the actual practice of Ash Wednesday and Lent is, indeed, foreign to our tradition, but the Wesleyan commitment to soul-searching, confession of sin and sanctification is very much a part of my Adventist upbringing and theological heritage. I believe the practice of Lent locates this tradition in a concrete practice and helps me (and I hope, my community) to redeem the time and make Easter about something besides Easter eggs and bunnies.
Interestingly, the gospel text for Ash Wednesday this year is Matthew 6:1-6, which reads, in part
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….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. But 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.
In spite of this, all over the world people will leave Ash Wednesday services and go out into the public with the sign of the cross on their forehead in ashes. Might we actually be violating this very command of Jesus that is part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy? The answer is: it depends. It depends on the reason for doing what you do. Commenting on Matthew 6:1ff, Dallas Willard says,
The teaching is not that we should hide our good deeds. That might be appropriate in some cases, but it is not Jesus’ point. There is nothing inherently wrong with them being known…. [The question is] not are we seen doing a good deed, but are we doing a good deed in order to be seen. Second, our intent in determined by what we want and expect from our action. When we do good deeds to be seen by human beings, that is because what we are looking for is something that comes from human beings. God responds to our expectations accordingly. When we want human approval and esteem, and do what we do for the sake of it, God courteously stands aside because, by our wish, it does not concern him (The Divine Conspiracy, 189-190).
So, whether a person who wears ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday is violating the teaching of Jesus depends on the person and his or her motives. If you wear these ashes humbly, as a reminder to yourself, above all, of the mercy of Christ for you a sinner, then the answer is “no!” If it is done ostentatiously, seeking to impress men and women with your religious devotion, then the answer is “yes!” However, in our world today where religion is so universally frowned upon, my guess is that we are less in danger of being publicly showy about our faith and more in danger of being timid and surreptitious. We are more likely today to keep our faith a private affair, hiding our commitments from those with whom we live and work. As one minister has said, “The Lord, who warned us about making a pretentious display of religion, also commanded us to ‘Let your light so shine before other people, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.’ Finding the pure balance between the private and public practice of our faith is not easy. Jesus never said it would be. That does not excuse a religion that cringes when in public places.” Lauren Winner says this in her book, Girl Meets God,
The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is nothing if not bold. … a dark and undeniable slash across your forehead, a bold proclamation of death and resurrection all at once. You forget that it is on your forehead and you walk out of church, out into the world, a living reminder that Christ died for us… The cross on our foreheads is meant to be a dramatic reminder to ourselves – and it is that. When Milind looks at me and says, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” I know what God did for me. He not only created me, he then poured out his grace upon me in the blood of his Son. Me, a bunch of dust! But the cross also stimulates other people’s questions. It provides an unmistakable opportunity – even obligation – to witness.
Tomorrow, the brave few will wear ashes on their foreheads for some part of the day as a reminder to themselves of their mortality and as a sign of their sincere penitence. They will also, at the same time, bear a bold witness to all that they meet, that they are marked by God.