Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
22 February 2023
Today, we mark the beginning of the Season of Lent with the Imposition of Ashes. This is an ancient custom dating back more than a thousand years in the history of the Church. The ashes are rich in symbolism. For one, they are a powerful reminder of our mortality. We will soon receive the ashes on our foreheads with the words: “Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” Being reminded of our mortality puts life into perspective. We realize how short life is. We reflect on how best to live the life that we are given. We focus on what truly matters in life.
The ashes also represent sorrow and repentance. In the Old Testament, we read of the tradition of wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes as an expression of mourning and repentance. For instance, in the Book of Jonah, the entire city of Nineveh – not just the people but even the animals – are covered in sackcloth and sitting in ashes (Jon 3:6) in a collective act of repentance. In the Early Church, Christians borrowed this custom and began putting ashes on their heads as a sign of sorrow for their sins. Then, in the Middles Ages, about the tenth and eleventh centuries, the tradition developed of beginning the penitential Season of Lent with the imposition of ashes.
This is a beautiful and powerful ritual with which to begin our season of repentance and reflection. But what do we make of the Gospel reading for today? In the passage from Matthew, Jesus warns his disciples: “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” (Mathew 6:1). You may be wondering: “Why then are we putting ashes on our forehead and going out in public?” There is a certain paradox between this passage and wearing ashes on our forehead for others to see. But, these days, I don’t think there is much danger of wearing ashes to show off our piety. To begin with, piety is not respected in our society, as it has been in other times. Indeed, in our culture, religiosity is often looked upon with suspicion and even contempt. It is even subject to mockery and ridicule. Remember the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live? So, far from impressing others, we actually make ourselves vulnerable when we wear the ashes on our forehead. We risk being seen as weird.
And, quite frankly, a lot of people won’t even know what to make of the ashes. Living in the Bible Belt, even many Protestants won’t know their significance. I’ve had many cases of people thinking that I just got dirty. Several years ago, the Office Professional in our department at school, a devout church-goer, came running down to my office with a Kleenex to try to wipe it off. And, believe it or not, I even had a professor of religious studies who mistook the ashes for grime on my face. So, considering the society in which we live, wearing ashes can hardly be a source of spiritual pride and arrogance for us. On the contrary, they humble us, reminding us of our mortality and of our sins and shortcomings.
Moreover, the ashes can even be an opportunity to witness to our faith. I don’t know about you, but it’s not easy to talk about my faith with others – and I’m a priest. I remember several years ago in graduate school, one of my colleagues was shocked when I told him that I was a Christian. It’s not that I was leading an especially decadent life; it’s because I rarely talked about my faith. But when we wear the ashes on our forehead, those who know what that means will know we are Christians, and those who don’t know, may ask, providing us a chance to witness and tell the world that we belong to Christ.
Dear friends, we gather today to begin the journey of Lent together. With the ashes on our foreheads, we commit ourselves to the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We do these things throughout the year, but they take on a special intensity during Lent. We pray more, we fast more, we give more to those in need. And we rigorously examine our lives in the light of our faith. As Jesus entered the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan and to prepare for his ministry, we, too, enter a spiritual wilderness to confront our sins and shortcomings, to repent and reflect, and to prepare ourselves to follow Jesus in his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. I pray that you will have a Most Holy Lent. Amen.
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