On Ash Wednesday, we wear, a smudged black mark somewhat resembling a cross; a sign of our beginning and our end. We wear that sign for the world to see, smudged onto our foreheads, that proclaims: we’re dust and to dust we are returning.
Doesn’t it feel a bit strange when our Gospel reading is definitely in contrast to that. Matthew 6:1-6,16-21:
Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
I will admit to being a bit perplexed when that “so that they may be seen by others” and “we shouldn’t be like the hypocrites who disfigure their faces while fasting”—on a day when we smudge ashes on our foreheads for all to see. But we aren’t practicing our piety before others in order to be seen or to show off. Instead, we’re proclaiming to the world what we as followers of Jesus know: we know that we’re dust. Holy and beloved, but dust all the same.
And that’s where we are all headed together: back to dust. And that is okay. Most of the time we can hold pancake Shrove Tuesday suppers, my practice was to give ashes Tuesday evening…..(technically in the Jewish tradition, the next day begins at sundown). Most of the time we would have lots of little kids present. We would have Mardi Gras party favors, pancake races and adults more excited sometimes than the children. There is something troubling to me when I would put ashes on a little girl dressed in pink with sparkle shoes “Remember thou art but dust and to dust thou shall return…..” I changed to…..(no and it doesn’t invalidate anything….) “Remember you are made of love and of love you shall return.” I think it is a reminder we will all return to God….the one that made us…formed our humanness of dirt.” God is the Alpha and the Omega….the beginning and the end. God in the beginning until the very end, that is what we know as followers of Jesus.
Remember you are of love and to love you shall return.
Our burial rite reminds us, "All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia."
On Wednesday, I will invite you to a Holy Lent. I will invite you for the imposition of ashes upon your forehead. This is meant to be a reminder that we are of love and to love we shall return…… when we offer up our foreheads to receive the ashen cross, it is full of reminders.
The Rev. Jennifer Moland-Kovash: During worship we confess and remember that this, too, shall pass: this day, this season of our lives, this struggle, this joy, this heartache. All of this will end, and we will return to the dust from which we began. But how quickly I forget, as I merge back into daily life that has me running errands, visiting people, stopping at the grocery store, that my forehead bears this message to the world—a billboard for mortality.
Last year, we handed out envelopes of ashes for those who wanted them to use at home, as it wasn’t safe to gather. I have heard many of you say that their friends wanted to share, to have some too.
We also put blessed communion wafers into envelopes so people watching our livestream at home could also participate in the Holy Eucharist.
This Ash Wednesday I am feeling the burden of our brokenness. Seeing the war ragging in Ukraine--- for a reason Putin can never convince me. I am feeling this lent with an even heavier heart….last year we could see signs of hope … hope that at some point we would return to “normal” lives. This year I am feeling those affected by a heinous war don’t see the hope has they once had. Hope is there….but it is different. Maybe it rings too true--because the cross that we wear proclaims to the world, “I know I’m going to die.”
Yes, we have hope, hope in a time when the “The lion and the lamb shall lie down together.” Yes, there is hope, and yet this year, I am feeling Lent even deeper than I thought I could….or should for that matter. This Lent I see the beginnings and endings clearer.
On Wednesday when we lean in to be marked with last year's palms burnt into dust, and we receive the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We also remember “We are of Love and to Love we Shall return.” We shall return to love through the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
That hope, in the symbolization of the ashen cross, "marks us as Christ owns forever". In that cross we remind ourselves of God’s mercy—God’s love and tender grace—traced upon our foreheads. “We are of Love and to Love we Shall return.”
Work consulted: Jennifer Moland-Kovash is copastor of All Saints Lutheran Church in Palatine, Illinois.