Ash Wednesday – 14 February 2018
Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Matt 6:1-6 (7-15), 16-21
A feature of the readings from both Joel and Matthew is they address God’s people who were religious, faithful in their religious practices like fasting, giving alms to the poor and prayer. However, their religious practices were undertaken with the intention of impressing others. They offered effusive and showy prayers which were designed to impress others watching on. They flamboyantly dispensed alms to the poor and broadcast to their friends their giving. Their public displays of repentance appeared shallow and designed only to make a statement. Their religious practices were disconnected from their hearts. They were superficial, empty and neither impressed God nor those watching on.
They may in some small degree, at least at the beginning, have sincerely repented; and they may have had some genuine intention to make rights to God. However, the major problem which Joel and Jesus identified was they thought they were good Jews, in good standing before God because of their effusive and often public displays of piety. They were blind and deceived in their thinking they were already righteous before God and they permitted themselves the luxury of doing the religious, outward things, the ‘keeping up appearances’, while their hearts were far from him.
Ash Wednesday is more than a remembrance that we are from dust, and to dust we will return (with the unspoken but obvious warning that we must be prepared to meet God our creator). Ash Wednesday is a corrective to the tendency by God’s people, of any background or in any age, to slowly lapse into a comfortable and sometimes smug position, that if they do the right things, all will be well with God, their neighbour and life.
The practice of Ash Wednesday is a dangerous practice which has been maintained by the church for many centuries. It is a dangerous practice because it challenges the well founded and established position held by those in the church itself, that they were always Christians because of their baptism, are Christians now, and will always Christians – despite what the condition of their heart might be before God. Nothing, they believe, is demanded of them than to turn up occasionally at church, do a few right things, support a few of the fundraising causes and believe that the way they treat others will result in God’s reward. This expectation of a reward is a misplaced expectation; it is accompanied with a sense of entitlement. The condition of their heart and their standing before God is not reflected upon.
The Jews of Jesus’ day claimed they were the children of Abraham. Likewise, the Christian today claims they are, by virtue of baptism, entitled to salvation, God’s favour and blessing. However, Thomas Merton puts it this way: “’Grace’, ‘mercy’ and ‘faith’ are not a permanent possession which we gain by our efforts and retain as though a right, provided we behave ourselves. They are constantly renewed gifts.” (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Practice, 85),
The place and purpose of Ash Wednesday is to remind us that our heart must be given to God as a prerequisite to whatever religious practices we then participate in or express. The heart must be converted and washed by God’s Spirit for renewal before such practices have any value or place. Ash Wednesday is to help us be freed from the dead works of religiosity. As an acquaintance disillusioned with his church put it to me: “Churches are often preoccupied with the issues of maintenance, money and management.” Repentance and faith in Christ are pushed into the background of this church’s concern. It is no wonder they do not grow because they are spiritually dead and visitors are able to sniff the scent of superficiality in their religious life.
We live during a period of church history which William C. Placher understood to be like the that which several Christian leaders of the nineteen century confronted. He writes: “Even in the nineteenth century, Christians like Soren Kierkegaard in Denmark and John Henry Newman in England, were thinking about the challenge of how to introduce serious Christianity into a society that thought itself already Christian.” (William C Placher, Callings, 330-331.) Ash Wednesday is an opportunity we are given periodically to remember we are in danger of lapsing into the self-deception that we are already Christians, and can live as Christians without the fruits of repentance and a renewed heart that expresses itself in a serious expression of faith.