Am I the only one who is always a bit taken aback by this Gospel reading on Ash Wednesday? Am I the only one who hears this text and wonders about what it is I’m actually doing here in this service and in this season – wonders if Jesus is pleased with the way I’m planning for Lent, what Jesus thinks about my walking around Center City with ashes on my forehead? Am I the only one who feels a bit chastened by these words – “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”?
The first time I attended an Ash Wednesday service was only eleven years ago, and it was actually here at Saint Mark’s. I was new to the Episcopal Church, new to mainstream Christianity in general, and definitely new to Lent. I’ll never forget looking at myself in the mirror, at the smudge of ash across my forehead and the little flakes that had fallen into my eyebrows and onto my nose; I’ll never forget the feeling of deep belonging that came along with this reflection; I looked like, and felt like, a real, live Christian. As I walked around the city that night, I couldn’t help but notice others, strangers with the same sooty mark, and I was so filled with joy that I wanted to rush up to them and hug them and say, You! You are a Christian! I am a Christian too! (For the record, I did not actually do this.)
In subsequent years, I’ve continued to find the sight of so many Christians walking around in public with their faith pressed into their foreheads to be very moving, even joyful. And I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to talk with friends about what we might give up for Lent, about what practices we’re thinking of taking on. I’ve loved moments like the year I turned on the ESPN show “Pardon the Interruption” and saw Tony Reali, the man the show’s hosts call “stat boy,” sitting proudly in the studio with his suit and his ashes on. I liked that his piety was right out there for everyone to see, and I liked the idea that mine was too.
But year after year on Ash Wednesday, I hear the words “whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets,” and “when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others,” and I have to wonder if I’m doing this right. Should I keep my Lenten disciplines secret? Should I not tell anyone if I decide to give up diet Coke or chocolate or meat? Should I hide the fact that I’m getting up early to pray or reading scripture instead of watching television? Should I wipe the ashes off of my forehead as I walk out of the church so that no one can see that I’ve worshipped in church on this day of fasting? I’ve known people – faithful, wonderful people – who have done any and all of these things; perhaps some of you might even do the same.
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that of course Jesus is right. Anything that we do to put our Lenten piety on display, to show off how hard we’re working or how holy we are, isn’t of much use to God or anyone else. If Lent is about showing off, then it isn’t about anything at all. But I think, at the risk of sounding like I’m “correcting” the Gospel, that there might be more to this Gospel story as we hear it in this time and in this place. I wonder if it’s possible that we, the Church, couldn’t do with a few more public acts of sincere piety.
Not to overstate the obvious, but in Jesus’ time, almost everything first-century Jews would have done would have been influenced by their faith. They would have said prayers as they rose in the morning, more prayers when they ate, left home, began their work. They would’ve had blessings for plowing a new field, blessings for the harvest, for marriage and new babies and deaths. Their days and weeks and seasons and years would have been shaped by thousands of little acts of their faith, some private, but many of them public – acts of piety that were shared by everyone else in their community. So the question in first century Palestine was not whether or not your acts of piety were public, because much of the time that decision wasn’t up to you. The question was whether or not your acts of piety were sincere, whether or not the state of your interior faith matched the quality of your exterior acts.
But in our time, thousands of years later, our faith is often less about what we do in the public square and more about what we do in our own homes or in our own heads. Christians, especially Episcopalians, just don’t display our faith much. When was the last time you said grace – in public – in a swanky Center City restaurant – out loud – before the appetizer course? When was the last time you prayed publicly before you began your work day, before you started a meeting, or when you sat down as a department to look at financial statements? How often do you share in communal acts of faith with your neighborhood, your friends at school, or your work colleagues? Now some of this, granted, is shaped by the multicultural, pluralistic society in which we live, but some of it is shaped by our own discomfort. We pray, of course, but we often don’t pray out loud (even within our families). We come to church, of course, but do we always tell people that for us Sunday worship takes priority over soccer games or brunch or vacation time? And speaking of our time, how do we obey that pesky fourth commandment about honoring Sabbath time and keeping it holy? Do we say, “I can’t come to the company picnic because that’s my Sabbath time,” or do we just let that one slide?
Now I get it; it’s risky to wear our faith on our foreheads. It takes courage to step out on the street and say yes, that’s right, I am a follower of Christ. But if we aren’t willing to do that, who is going to do it for us? If we aren’t willing to claim our faith publicly, it will just become easier for society to push us to the margins, and we will no reason to act surprised when our Church shrinks and shrinks, and evangelism becomes harder and harder, and people wonder more and more where the fix is going to come from.
Now, of course, none of this is a surprise to the living Christ. And I think that this idea of reclaiming our public piety is, actually, consonant with the Gospel message for today. Because for all of his words of warning, Jesus did fully expect his disciples to live out their faith in the public sphere. Jesus expected his followers to speak about their faith, to use Gospel language, to make life decisions based on their understanding of their relationship with God and their neighbors…and to be explicit about the reasoning behind those decisions. So maybe in first-century Palestine the problem was not so much doing public acts of piety but doing them in a humble, authentic, God-focused way. And in twenty-first century Philadelphia the problem is not so much showing off our faith but letting it shine through into our public works and acts. Same coin, different side. And so maybe, just maybe, it is time to take some of our prayer, some of our fasting, some of our alms-giving, some of our piety, out into the light and practice it in public.
Perhaps it is time to say out loud to this secular, material, spiritual-but-not-religious world, Yes! I am a Christian, even though you think I am outdated, naive, superstitious, and irrelevant. Yes! I am a Christian, even when that means that you’re going to lump me in with everyone else who uses that word, even those who support and advocate for that which I absolutely despise. Yes! I fast. Yes! I give alms. Yes! I pray. And yes! I wear my faith on my forehead, even when you can’t see it, in the shape of a cross where in my baptism I was sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever. And yes! I struggle always to be humble and authentic and God-focused, but that is just part of the deal, part of this day, which is messy and challenging, and rewarding and perplexing and glorious and wonderful. Yes! I am a Christian…and won't you be a Christian too?
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
Ash Wednesday 2012
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia