Summary: The life of faith is low-profile. We minimize ourselves so that God can be magnified and glorified. Contrasts showy piety and quiet faith actions.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day in Lent, the season of the church year during which we focus our attention on our devotion to God before Easter. Ash Wednesday gives us an unusual opportunity to focus on our mortality and our sin. These are not popular topics, nor issues that we like to address, but Ash Wednesday gives us a wake-up call with these realities. The gospel lesson for today reminds us to give alms, pray, and fast quietly, without drawing attention to ourselves. Jesus reminds us that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.
Our quest during Lent is to draw closer to God. The traditional Lenten disciplines of fasting, praying, not saying alleluias in worship, giving up things, journaling, donating money are all intended to focus our devotion on God. They are meant to remove barriers from our relationship to God, to take away hindrances from our growth in God. They are supposed to help us strip away excess and get back to the basics of faith.
Yet again this Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that nothing is automatically religious in itself: not giving, not praying, not fasting, not giving up things for Lent. Religious things aren’t an automatic plus. Jesus’ words in the gospel lesson are evidence of that. Jesus says, "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." Piety is not bad, but parading around so that others will be impressed by your religion is futile, says Jesus.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day would pray three times a day, offering a standard prayer of eighteen lengthy petitions. Some took great pride in praying these prayers in the street surrounded by the crowd so everyone could see how pious they were. Jesus said, ’Practicing your piety in public is no evidence of faith.’ Now, certainly, giving money to Amnesty International is better than wasting it on cocaine. Praying for the poor is certainly better than overcharging the poor. But doing any of these to get people to notice defeats the purpose.
Because God is in secret, and sees in secret, no showy display is necessary. God knows what is in the depths of our hearts, where no one else can see. Jesus didn’t mean for people to stop these acts of devotion, but invited us to ask why are we doing what we are doing? Always we should ask why? Why should I loudly complain about being hungry when I was fasting? And why did I gripe about having to read my Bible when I was studying during Lent? Why did I insist on dropping that $20 bill in the offering plate when everyone was looking? Devotion to God that is done for the purpose of being seen is no devotion at all. The life of faith is low-profile. We minimize ourselves so that God can be magnified and glorified.
When I made the sign of the cross on your forehead, I said, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return." It has been said that Ash Wednesday is a rehearsal for our funerals. It points ahead to what will become of every single life someday.