a Homily for Ash Wednesday
Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Beyond Black Thumb Day
Today is Black Thumb Day.
What? Never heard of it? It is the day that priests all over the world put on nice white albs, dip their thumbs in black, flaky ashes, and smudge those ashes on everything. It begins with people’s foreheads. But each year, we forget to bring something to clean up with. We bring the ashes down from the altar to the people and we find ourselves stuck with a bowl of ashes, a black thumb, and nothing we can do about it.
I’m sure you’ve seen one of these things: the priest walking with her thumb out like this, trying in vain to preserve the whiteness of her robe. For us, it is Black Thumb Day. For the rest of the world, it is Ash Wednesday.
We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
This day is always messy. Each year I watch this amazing bit of grace play out differently, uniquely, like a snowflake. Each time I dip, then draw a cross on someone’s forehead, the little black specks drop—the extra that doesn’t stick to the skin—sort of floats, drifts down toward the bowl or speckles our clothes. I imagine a soundtrack of pristine beauty to match the delicate flakes falling.
And what remains from our intimate interaction are the specks of black on your shirt and on my alb and chasuble. These signs there to remind us—again—of dust. Of us. Of our death. Of our returning.
These are holy moments, really. We take them for granted. And we miss them.
Each year, we gather at this time to remember. And we receive a gospel from Matthew that continues Jesus’s teaching we call the Sermon on the Mount. A preaching that challenges its hearers to witness the Kingdom of GOD and make it known in their lives. That we might become perfect: perfect in that we reflect the Christ within us. That we are Christ in the world. We embody Christ.
Each year we receive this gospel conflicted. We hear what we believe is a call to keep our faith a secret, but then we make a very public display of receiving a cross of ashes. A cross we place on top of the cross of oil we received at Baptism. A cross that smudges and messes up our clothes. A cross we’ll wipe accidentally minutes after it is placed on us. A cross we may choose to wipe off on our way out the door.
And each year, I try to decide if Jesus is talking about the same kind of secrecy that I know. Not the personal thoughts and fleeting moments of personal dialogue that I choose not to share with anyone because they are as ephemeral as a single snowflake in our winter wonderland.
But a secret. The thing that we keep that erodes relationship and causes dysfunction. The secret that prevents us from ever truly being honest with one another or gaining the kind of intimacy that Jesus teaches is essential to a true relationship with GOD. When I wouldn’t tell him what I was thinking, my best friend used to say
“Secrets, secrets are no fun. Secrets, secrets hurt someone.”
That someone, of course, is us.
No Public, No Private
When we hear that we aren’t to practice our piety to be seen, to not grimace and prove how uncomfortable we are, to keep our giving secret, we are told that it isn’t about the piety, but about GOD. We are told that it is about how right we are with GOD. That piety and generosity and giving and the very work of following Jesus isn’t about what the people around us think, it is about what GOD thinks. It isn’t about being seen, it is about being with. Our being with GOD.
This is why the church offers ashes today, in a public ritual of devotion. Because our private devotions and secret affirmations from the safety of our bedroom closets, are one thing, but it isn’t the only thing.
Secret private piety isn’t the answer to obnoxious public piety we think Jesus is teaching. Because that isn’t really any more about GOD. Our secret private piety is still about us, rather than GOD.
That is why Jesus speaks of where our hearts are. Because our private and public selves are actually the same. There is no private us and public us. There is no secret faith to set up against a private faith. There is genuine faith and there is fake faith. And of course a whole lot of immature faith in between.
If we are generous in secret, and not generous in public, then we aren’t actually generous. It is the same sin as being generous in public and selfish in private.
So our response to this is to put ashes on each other. To say those words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” To re-member is to put back together, to make whole, to reunify the community. We help each other re-member so that we might become whole again.
We may become whole and one creation again. This is what Jesus refers to when He speaks of reconciliation: of reconciling the world.
For we are the earth and to the earth we will return. To return to the earth, we must re-member that we are the earth. We are the dust that flies and the ashes that flake, the sand that the winds blow and mud moved by the river. We are the earth and everything in it. We are creation.
Tonight, let us re-member, coming together with one another and with the work of our creator: the one who made everything and called it good.
Let us begin a process of re-membering that will take 40 days as we learn of GOD’s work in our lives and our purpose in bringing the Kingdom closer. That we might allow ourselves to be formed and re-formed (re-created) by our creator, the artist who made us beautiful in an act of abundant joy.
And let us be re-membered, that this creation may be truly perfect: a perfect representation of GOD, mirroring the creative and graceful love of our divine parent and life-giver. That when one sets her eyes upon us, she may see GOD.
A creation re-membered, formed of the dust of the earth.