It is as sure as the sun will rise that every year on Ash Wednesday the lectionary presents us with the same passage from the Gospel according to Matthew. It is difficult not to identify with the hypocrites who disfigure their faces while fasting, especially when on this holy day we participate in our own act of facial disfigurement. And frankly, it might not be inappropriate to wonder whether there is a deliberately humorous irony in the choice of this particular reading for today.
What we hear from Matthew’s Gospel seems obvious enough. Do not be hypocritical—or perhaps a better rendering is “do not put on pretenses.” Tend to the heart rather than fixating on appearances. Do good works because Christian discipleship requires nothing less, not to gain favor in the eyes of others. Go about your pious activities quietly; your heavenly Father knows what you are doing, and that’s all that counts.
But as sure as the sun will rise and as sure as our bellies are full of naughty foods stored up for the Lenten fast, we will walk out of this church building tonight with black crosses smeared on our foreheads even though we have heard Jesus’s own words to his disciples to wash their faces when fasting. And the more scrupulous among us may be bothered by all of this.
I wonder, though, if we feel a tad hypocritical not because we actually believe that Scripture has prohibited us from putting ashes on our foreheads. Instead, I wonder, do we feel hypocritical because the seeming disparity between ritual and Scripture in the Ash Wednesday liturgy reminds us of the disparity between what we profess with our lips and what we do in reality?
Do we feel duplicitous in coming to the throne of God, year after year on this holy day to repent when we know that before long, we will stumble over ourselves yet again? The hand that traces the sign of the cross over our bodies will be the same hand that inevitably wrongs a neighbor. The forehead that bears the blatant reminder of our own mortality will be the head once again held high in arrogance. The lips that receive the gift of Christ in his Body and Blood will be the same lips that slander another person.
Yes, as sure as the sun will rise and as sure as we are handed the same Gospel passage each Ash Wednesday, we have to admit that the apostle Paul was onto something in his letter to the Romans when he said that “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
If we’re honest, this humanity business can seem like a cycle of despair, weighed down with our mortality and frailty. This evening, especially, we honor our desire to make a clean start of things, and still we know that our human nature will get in the way of the best-laid plans. Is there any way out of this mess?
If it were not gloomy old Ash Wednesday, we might be tempted to laugh, to laugh at the ritual absurdity of imposing ashes minutes after hearing a passage that seems to speak against it. We might be tempted to laugh at a God who, time and again, is merciful enough to forgive penitent humans who are constantly getting things wrong.
And maybe we should laugh. Maybe laughing at ourselves in all our fallibility is exactly what we are called to do on Ash Wednesday. Because when we take ourselves too seriously we fail to grasp that we are but dust. Humility demands recognizing our tie to the dust of the earth from which we were formed. Pride masquerades as false humility, unable to accept that God indeed hates nothing he has made. And knowing that we are but dust, can we laugh at the incomprehensibility of God’s mercy, like Sarah did when God promised her a child in her old age? Can we laugh in joy at a God who constantly forgives us, in spite of our mortal vacillation between good and bad intentions?
Living in all our human frailty before God’s limitless compassion is living in a place of limbo, where we accept that we are sinners and yet are forgiven, that we are redeemed and still in need of redemption, and that we are fragile human flesh nevertheless created for goodness in the image of God.
But in the best efforts to make amends this Lent, do we find that we are still looking for our reward? In the zeal to be the exemplary Christian and to get it right this year, do we navigate the waters precariously between the rocks of over-scrupulosity and not taking ourselves seriously enough?
It is about this human predicament that T.S. Eliot wrote so eloquently in his poem “Ash-Wednesday.” As he puts it, we are “wavering between the profit and the loss/In this brief transit where the dreams cross/The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying.” It is a twilight of angst and confusion, of wanting and not wanting, of desiring God and not desiring God. It is a twilight of sinning and turning back to God in repentance. It is a twilight of knowing we will mess up again and still we brazenly and persistently ask for God’s help not to do so.
In this place of transit “where the dreams cross,” we can only offer to God a prayer—again from Eliot’s poem—to “Teach us to care and not to care.” In our prayer, we long for a peaceful resting in God’s eternal graciousness, where our left hand does not know what our right hand is doing, even among the laughable perils of this earthly life. We pray that when we sound our trumpets and disfigure our faces and find ourselves worrying about the peccadilloes of piety, we might care a little bit less. We might care a little bit less so that we fully trust what God has promised, that Christ has won the victory and nothing we do can earn that reward. It has already been generously given.
In this place of transit “where the dreams cross,” we also pray that we might care a bit more when the apathy of life weighs us down and when we have given up hope that God can act and raise us up from despair. When our complacency bids us think that we have already received our earthly reward and need not turn again to God, we might pray to care a bit more. We pray that we might care enough to store up treasures in heaven rather than in the midst of decay and decomposition.
This place of transit, “wavering between the profit and the loss,” “where the dreams cross,” is where we give alms, pray, fast, and store up heavenly treasures not because we desire a reward but because we are fueled with thanksgiving for the certainty of God’s gift of mercy.
We look in the mirror at our disfigured faces on Ash Wednesday and we see the sober reminder of our mortality traced on our foreheads. It is an admonition to take ourselves a bit more lightly, that it is not all about us, even in our heartfelt postures of repentance. As we orient ourselves to God’s rising sun in the east, shining on our lives to announce his unceasing compassion, we pray to know when we should care and when we should not care. And precisely “where the dreams cross” in this mortal life between birth and dying we find ourselves at the foot of the cross in repentance.
We remember that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return, but even more so, that Christ is able to raise up that dust to new life. We can chuckle at ourselves and take ourselves ever so lightly knowing that all our foolish ways, all our overly pious strivings, all our self-consumption can be redeemed by Christ if we give ourselves to him. Our desiccated hearts and dried-up bones, tense with self-importance, can yet live and be clothed with flesh again in resurrected glory.
Mark my word: as sure as the sun will rise, next year on Ash Wednesday we will be handed the same Gospel passage. And we might find ourselves feeling a bit hypocritical and confused by all this irony. But as sure as the sun will rise and while we continue to live in this temporal place “where the dreams cross,” God’s faithfulness and goodness will always be as new as the morning and waiting for us. Yes, we will wander, and we will be privy to the changes and chances of this earthly life, but God looks on us on and laughs, winking at our sins, and beckoning us into his arms of mercy. And that’s as sure as the sun will rise.
Preached by Father Kyle Babin
March 6, 2019, Ash Wednesday
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia