Next Wednesday, I give the Ash Wednesday sermon (twice—noon and 7 PM). Ash Wednesday has always been a bit of a curiosity for me, for although I grew up in a heavily Roman Catholic state (Maryland), most of the Catholic kids went to their parochial schools, so we never saw them. And we never saw the cross on their foreheads. Never had one on mine either.
We were always sort of reticent about religious symbols. Though most of my friends were Jewish, you would never have known to look at them. Boys never wore yarmulkes. If a girl wore a cross on a necklace, we thought of it as just a pretty symbol, nothing religious.
Next Wednesday I get an ash cross on my forehead. And I preach about it. And the text is Matthew 6 "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them."
Now what? The writers of the lectionary have set me a pretty dilemma.
Let's back off a bit. I've spent most of my adult life associated with universities and colleges. Almost every building I have worked in has had someone's name attached to it, and even though we normally forget who these people were, the point was to memorialize a rich donor. On my campus, one of the dorms was Liggett because the tobacco magnate gave money for it. I attended classes is Busch because the beer manufacturer was a donor. Now I teach in Dauch, named after a man who made his money in auto parts (a less ominous trade than tobacco or beer).
Back in Jesus' day, wealth was seen as a sign of God's favor, and public praying and fasting was a way to show off how devoted one was. it was a great way to get public honor and praise. I think that's what Jesus is warning us against.
I'm always uneasy when some noted religious person stands in front of a TV camera to give a public prayer. When someone compliments the way someone prayed in a public meeting, that sets my teeth on edge. Some of the prayers God likes best are not too artistic—Romans 8:26 says the Spirit helps our prayers when we just cannot do it with good words.
So what about that mark on my forehead? I don't think it's a case of "Little Jack Horner" Christianity ("He put in his thumb and pulled out a plum, and said 'What a good boy am I.'") It's more a mark of ownership and possession. After all, we burned the Palm Sunday fronds to make the ashes. Those were earthly signs of Jesus' kingship. He's the king. Not me. It's not a smiley face. It's a symbol that someone died for me. It's a symbol of death and burning and destruction. It's also a mess and hard to get off. I'm stuck with the thing all day. I didn't put it there. I don't deserve any real credit. It's all Christ's doing.