In some way, it’s an odd Gospel reading to select for today, one that touts the importance of subtlety. One that clearly states that we should “not perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them” (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18). This entire Gospel reading is a series of instructions on how not to wear our righteousness out on our sleeves. Yet, we hear this on a day when we we all have black crosses smeared across our foreheads for all the world to see.
These black marks are anything but subtle.
Of course, the ashes are meant to remind us of how brief our lives are and how we are merely a composition made of molecules. But Christians everywhere believe that the molecular jumble that we are is elevated upward by the promise of salvation and transformed into something much, much greater.
Churches all around the world are full today with those who seek these black marks on their foreheads. Despite the fact that our culture seems increasingly un-religious, more and more people are pursuing these black marks and choosing visible evidence of our fleeting nature and some tangible, physical representation of this divine elevation. We show this on our foreheads. Ash Wednesday is suddenly cool.
I’ve been trying to figure out why this is the case and I think that understanding this trend would make for an interesting topic for discussion… but it is not the topic of this reflection. Rather, I would like to suggest that we go back to the Gospel reading and remind ourselves that we are not called upon to blare trumpets, to seek praise, to be noticed and celebrated for what we believe. Rather, we are called to demonstrate what we believe by our actions, by the manner in which we treat each other, by subtler signs… such as forgiveness (whether in granting it or seeking it), by compassion, by concern, by serving others.
So… since we’re wearing these black marks on our foreheads today, let’s see if rather than being simply symbols for others to see… they can become reminders to each of us of what we’re truly called to do and to be.
We begin the season of Lent today… a season that reminds us that we are not a molecular jumble… for we will be elevated upward. And we are not fleeting… for we were truly built to last.