Preached FCCW, March 6, 2019, Ash Wednesday
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The church calendar is filled with holy seasons, like Advent, Epiphany, and lent; and holy days like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost – and the one we are here to observe tonight, Ash Wednesday. Often, there are certain visible and tangible practices associated with these special times. Like being anointed with ashes on Ash Wednesday.
These seasons and days serve an important purpose. They help keep us connected to the sacred stories that define us according to our faith. They are like mile markers on our spiritual journeys. But, if we are not careful, these holy days and seasons can become occasions of empty rituals. They turn into a checklist of obligations to keep each year, detached from their intended significance and emptied of all spiritual rewards.
Jesus issued some warnings about going through religious motions that are divorced from their spiritual meanings. He cautioned that those who practiced their piety in public to be thought well of by others would not gain the spiritual reward that the practice was intended to give. You might gain the reward of others’ good opinions of you. You might even reward yourself with the self-satisfaction of checking the box of another thing that a “good Christian” is supposed to do. But, as Jesus points out, religion performed out of obligation or the expectations of others is also a kind of self-deception, because we miss out on the only reward that really matters. The reward of a deeper, more intimate relationship with God.
Once a year, we worship together in this strange and solemn occasion called Ash Wednesday. When we leave, it is with a cross of ash smudged on our skin as proof that this holy obligation has been satisfied and put behind us until next year, when we will return to do it all over again. But ashes on the skin can’t really tell anything about what we have or have not experienced in our soul.
In the ancient world, wearing ashes signified deep sorrow or grief. It could be a sign of mourning the death of someone we loved. It could also be an expression of penitential sorrow for our personal shortcomings and the insignia of our intention of repentance – of turning around and doing things differently.
As an acknowledgement of our own mortality, the ashes themselves will be gone tomorrow. But the reality of our need for God’s grace is something that needs to be renewed each and every day. In his second letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul pleaded with them to be reconciled to God and to not accept the grace of God in vain. In other words, to be purposeful about their relationship to God and not make an outward show of receiving the grace of God but missing the reward of the inward experience of forgiveness that reconciles us to Him.
Ash Wednesday as a single day for being anointed with ash as a token of our mortal inability to save ourselves is really a reminder of something that we need to experience 365 days of the year if there is any reward to be found in it. In his urging of the Christians in Corinth to not receive God’s grace in vain, Paul’s words seem to shout from the page at us, as well. “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”
The key word in that sentence is “Now!” The day of our salvation – of our need and God’s willingness to forgive us, transform us and guide us — is not relegated to any certain calendar date, or any specific religious observance.
The day of salvation is always now.
If the intent of Ash Wednesday is that it be a reminder to us of our own need for the repentance that leads to forgiveness and salvation; then may every day be an Ash Wednesday.
Copyright 2019 Raymond Medeiros