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What Do The Ashes Mean To You?

This commentary was written by James Howell, Senior Pastor, Myers Park United Methodist Church Charlotte, North Carolina, Lutheran Seminary Contributor "Ash Wednesday. I always tell myself and fellow clergy that they do not come for the homily. They come for the ashes. With coronavirus, will they come at all? Self-administration of ashes? If they come, or if we are virtual somehow, I still love the great reflection Martin Sheen offered when interviewed by Krista Tippett: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say Here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”1 Matthew 6 is perfect yet terribly odd for Ash Wednesday. Jesus tells us not to practice our piety visibly (verse 1), and not to disfigure our faces but to wash them (verse 16)—on the very day we disfigure our faces publicly. Nobody at my place is showing off, though, sporting ashes for the rest of the day. If anything, they will get some strange stares at the store on the way home. When I get home, I try to take some time to linger before a mirror—to ponder that I have just been marked with the horror and hope of Jesus’ cross. No hymn captures so thrillingly the paradox of this horror and hope as Isaac Watts’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” We “survey” the cross. We do not just glance at it. The soldiers did not survey this one. They had seen plenty of crosses, and had no reason to think this was God. All they saw was a dying, despised person—which was precisely what God was hoping to achieve. More lines in that hymn bear reflection: “Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” Onlookers saw tragedy, maybe justice mingled. “Did e’er … thorns compose so rich a crown?” At Elizabeth II’s coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury placed St. Edward’s Crown on her head. It was heavy, forged of 22 karat gold, with 444 precious stones, aquamarines, topazes, rubies, amethysts, and sapphires. She then knelt to receive the body and blood of our Lord. Did she ponder Jesus’ very different crown, its only ornaments those harsh thorns gashing his forehead, scalp, and temples? “My richest gain I count but loss.” Lent is the season to reassess what has value, what does not, and how much we offer up to God. Do we urge our people to embark on a fast? It is not dieting. It is not being glum and feeling sorry for ourselves. It is solidarity with those who are not choosing to fast. It is weaning ourselves from our dependencies on things. It is an awakening to where our treasure is. Where are the “Take the Bible literally!” people when it comes to “Do not lay up treasure on earth” (verse 19)? We prudently save, we check our retirement portfolios, we pay off the house. No use castigating the people or ourselves. It is a mark of our brokenness, our desperate need for the true God. The ashes are like that mark on Cain’s forehead. It is guilt and grace. And so we invite people into (hopefully) a growing devotion, a loosening of our grip on our treasures, an expansion of God and grace into daily life. Here is something we did a few years back. At the Baptism of the Lord, we handed out shower tags (we got the idea, and even purchased the tags from Adam Hamilton!), which you hang in the bath: “Lord, as I enter the water to bathe, I remember my Baptism. Wash me by your grace, fill me with your Spirit, renew my soul. I pray that I might live as your child today, and honor you in all that I do.” On Ash Wednesday, we picked up on Matthew 6 and handed out closet tags. Jesus said “Go into your closet to pray” (verse 6). The Greek tameion is an inner room of the house, a storeroom, small and private—reminding us of the need for a dedicated holy space at home. I love this—that if you go into your closet and pray, you are doing God’s will! Picking up on other clothing images in Scripture, here is how that tag reads: “Jesus said, ‘Go into your closet and pray in secret; and your Father will reward you.’ So pray. Prepare for your day with God. As you dress, remember Romans 14:8, ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,’ and Colossians 3:12, ‘Put on compassion, patience, forgiveness, love—and be thankful. Whatever you do, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus.’” Two more items while we are on Matthew 6. Jesus says “When you pray,” not “If you pray”—and he was assuming three set times of prayer as was common Jewish practice then and now. When Will Willimon was Dean of Duke Chapel, he told about a Muslim student who asked him, “Why don’t the Christian students ever pray?” He obviously observed the five set daily times for prayer in Islam, and was puzzled that he never ever saw Christians stopping to pray. It is a judgment call whether you can mention this to your people. I think it is compelling, and inviting—but some folks have such potent, irrational anti-Muslim feelings that they will shut down on you.

And then Jesus talks about “reward,” shunning earthly reward, but implying quite clearly there are rewards, ultimate rewards to the life of faith. I for one downplay this, remembering a very smart college student who asked me if he could become a Christian if he did not believe in eternal life. His angle was that he wanted to follow Jesus just because it was good, right, noble and true, not to secure any prize for himself. I admire that—but quite clearly the Gospels and Epistles lay out for us fabulous, unspeakably fantastic rewards, or ultimate realities, for those who believe."

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