5 Mar 2014
“‘Beware of practicing your piety before others [if only] in order to be seen by them.’” (Mt 6:1) In the name …
I have exciting news for any of you out there who may be bird watchers. This has been a winter that won’t let go. Those birds fluttering around feeders are little, hopeful reminders that Spring will eventually show up, that green will return, flowers will bloom and birds will sing. And my exciting news is that birds are religious. I know this because right outside of my kitchen window I have seen Jewish birds and Christian birds. You may wonder how I can tell the difference. Well, it has to do with the fact that I’m cheap. I don’t buy birdseed. I give the birds the old, stale stuff from the house. This week I threw-out some old matzo, those Jewish crackers. And I also threw-out the left-over Christmas wafers that a lot of us here share with each other in December. Some birds ate the matzo crackers and others ate the Christmas wafers. In my book, that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that some birds and Jewish and some are Christian.
O.K., maybe we can’t tell the faith of a bird by whether it eats Matzo crackers or Christmas wafers, but I think Jesus is telling us this evening that we can’t tell much about a person’s faith from the outside either. And this is counter-culture on Ash Wednesday because we wear the marking of our faith on the outside today. We actually place the ashes where we can’t even see them on ourselves; we can only see them on others. This is like going to a Tea Party convention in a Toyota Prius festooned with “I’m ready for Hillary” stickers. So as we don the ashes this night, let us keep in mind Jesus’ words: “‘Beware of practicing your piety before others [if only] in order to be seen.’” (Matt 6:1)
Be seen. Now there’s a real temptation of our day and age. Be seen. I was happy to hear that a young woman from Hampshire College won some Academy Award a few nights ago. So few aspiring theater majors will actually make a name for themselves to the point where they will “be seen.” That’s why I’m surprised when the ones who want to become famous do become famous and then complain about all the attention they get because they are famous. Be seen. Then there’s today’s infatuation with sharing everything through all of those apps whose names I don’t even know. I love those commercials for T-Mobile with the two parents begging someone to tell their son Jeremy who’s over in Europe to turn off his phone. “Eggs are eggs Jeremy,” yells the mother. “Who wants to see that? What’s next the butter and the bread? The milk?” Everything we do has to “be seen” to have meaning The old adage used to be: “Does a tree falling in the forest make a sound if no one is there to hear it?” Today it’s: “Does anything matter if no one else sees it?”
The ashes on our foreheads, unlike Jeremy’s eggs, are not there just to “be seen.” If that’s all they do, they say as much about our faith as whether a crow eats Matzo crackers or Christmas wafers. So what do they mean? Why begin Lent with them? Let’s begin with the words recited as the ashes are distributed: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return, but your soul returns to God.” The Bible says that God created Adam “from the dust of the ground” and that God then breathed the “breath of life” into him. (Gen 2:7) This is as symbolic as the ashes, but it still has meaning. We are, reveals the biblical author, both of the earth and of God. We are both physical and spiritual. But as the Bible story continues, we read of the Fall. Here God tells Adam, “‘You are dust and to dust you shall return.’” (Gen. 3:19) Reference to the breath of life is gone. Sin, in other words, ignores the part of us that comes from God and leaves us with nothing to hold on to except the physical.
The words of imposition ask us if we’re satisfied with this. There are thoughtful, moral people who are, and I respect that. I, however, am not. I think it was the composer Antonín Dvořák who once said that there are emotions and thoughts that cannot be adequately conveyed by word. They require music. I can’t help but feel that there is a part of me, a part of life, a part of all creation, that cannot be explained only by the physical. It requires the spiritual. There are times when the spiritual is so real it almost becomes tangible. And over the years I have discovered that many of these sacred moments, at least for me, have been Lenten. Lent is a chance to come closer to Christ by removing distractions and by adding opportunities such as this night so that we can feel the nearness of Jesus.
This is a bit of exegetical cheating and I hope the other pastors here tonight will forgive me, but Genesis leaves out the breath of God when after Adam’s Fall, God only mentions, “You are dust.” Jumping from the first book of the Old Testament to the first book of the New Testament, Matthew conveys to us the last moment of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion by writing, “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.” (27:50) The breath of God absent at the Fall returns to us at the crucifixion. Jesus exhales the breath of God into our world and He dies so that we can live. Somehow the life of Jesus and His final breath from the cross is God again breathing the breath of life into our bodies and souls. Lent is our chance to reconnect with the part of God that is within us.
The ashes and the words of imposition begin our Lenten journey by asking us if we’re satisfied with being nothing more than the physical. But if we feel within us that there is something else, then Lent is our sacred opportunity, maybe even our obligation, to search for it. As the Gospel tonight says, may what we do for others, may our prayers and our fasting, not be done only to “be seen,” but may they may spring from the life of God within us. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo