Reading 1: Joel 2:12-18
Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind him a blessing, Offerings and libations for the LORD, your God.
Blow the trumpet in Zion! proclaim a fast, call an assembly; Gather the people, notify the congregation; Assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast; Let the bridegroom quit his room and the bride her chamber. Between the porch and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep, And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people, and make not your heritage a reproach, with the nations ruling over them! Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land and took pity on his people.
Reading 2: 2 Corinthians 5:20 – 6:2
Brothers and sisters: We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Working together, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says:
In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.
Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Jesus said to his disciples: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
I recently went to a funeral for the father of a family friend out of respect for our friend, even though I never met the gentleman. He was cremated, and as I am sitting in the pew looking at the urn, I am trying to picture the man through the few stories I heard about him during the eulogy and pastor’s sermon, yet I was also thinking about that there were just ashes in that beautiful wood box, while the memories in those stories lived on. The body became ashes… a box full of charred particles in a form of dust after the gentleman passed away. Thinking about the ashes did not mean I was not listening to the stories about the man. Everything that was shared by the family and pastor spoke to how the gentleman exemplified the word and action of love. He was always helping those in need, even up to the day that his health no longer permitted him to be active. People around him saw that he was loving and helping not because he expected anything in return or wanted to be noticed, but rather merely doing it because it was the right thing to do. This is what the Gospel for today is all about. Jesus instructs his disciples to live and carry out their faith without having to boast about what they are doing, because God already sees the actions. Going to the funeral helped me understand Ash Wednesday a little differently, as it was roughly two weeks away.
When ashes are placed on our forehead by the priest or deacon, the words that are usually said are “Remember that dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (Coming from Genesis 3:19) Humanity was created out of dust, and just like the father of our family friend, we will become dust regardless of being buried or cremated. Sure, placing ashes in the shape of a cross on our forehead is an outward sign showing others we profess our faith. That might seem in contradiction with what we are instructed by Jesus, but it really is not! That cross is also a reminder for our selves. Certain aspects of our self must die in order to truly follow Jesus. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent; a season of preparation and conversion, and a time when those ashes cause us to think about becoming a better person. Hopefully at the end of those forty days of Lent, it has not been about giving up candy or just praying more because it is Lent, but hopefully become a better person forever.
I recognize areas in which I need to change and grow, and I can only hopefully become more like the father of our family friend through this growth process. When receiving ashes on my forehead, I am going to think about that gentleman who was all about love, instead of it just being a cross on my forehead for others to see that I am beginning my Lenten journey. When you receive those ashes, what will it be about for you? Will it be an outward sign, or a reminder that some aspects of us must die in order to more closely follow Jesus?
“So let us pray… Father, as we embark on our Lenten journey, help us wear our ashes as symbols of desiring to more closely follow your Son. Through that same Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever; Amen.”