“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Lay Up Treasures in Heaven “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Mat 6:16-21)
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.”
Ash Wednesday, the celebration of irony. We mark our heads with ashes and read the words of Jesus that tell us not to do this. Not to make a show of our religion, of our piety, or our works. To lay up treasure in heaven with God who sees in secret and rewards in secret, rather than in man who is so easily impressed by the religious exploits of others. That is the religion of the hypocrites.
Hypocrites, they don’t really care about God, but morality and standing before men. Their religion is about the impressing of men, others like themselves. It’s an odd thing to watch from time to time. The lengths people go to make their religion about people and what others think of them. The religion of hypocrites.
In Jesus day it was a matter of making a show that you were fasting. Sack cloth and ashes. Of course the Old Testament is full of people repenting and fasting and wearing sack cloth and ashes to mark their fast. And there was nothing wrong with that. But when the fasting became about being seen by men, rather than a sincere piety directed towards God, then there was a problem. When it becomes about impressing others with your piety it’s a problem.
This can be done in a myriad of ways. I’m not sure it is even possible for sinners to avoid it. There are people out there that refuse to cut finger nails as an act of piety. The just let them grow long and curl around. There are others who insist women wear dresses, and men wear slacks. There are people who make religion about not smoking or drinking and being offended at others who do. And we won’t even get to the use of uncouth language.
If find it odd that in all this, love is often left out. It’s amazing sometimes how unloving religious types can be, who take themselves way too seriously. And that is what makes the whole thing, the whole religion thing a crock. And mind you what bubbles in that crock is not chicken soup, not even split pea, no matter how much it might look like split pea. It has not love! It is a clanging gong.
You see, this is what that cross, the one represented by the smudge of oil and ashes imposed upon your flesh with the words from dust your are and to dust you will return, this is what that cross represents. It is your ruin. From dust you are and to dust you will return. The words echo the futility of religion, the attempts to redeem yourself. You are dust. God created you from dust, and you will return to dust. You can’t possibly do anything to change that fate. Nothing. All your works are for naught if by them you expect to change that. And it is when you are trying to do that that your religion becomes a crock. Even worse when it becomes about impressing people. It leads you to take yourself way too seriously. You are dust. And to dust you shall return. But for the cross.
That is the Irony of Ash Wednesday. The deeper irony. We hear the words, and then ashes of death smeared on our forehead in the shape of a cross. It’s irony because there your fate was thwarted. It was reversed. There God himself died for your ashes, for your dust. There he died that from the dust to which you will return you will be recreated and brought forth. That cross was put on you before, it was made upon you in baptism, imposed upon you there that you would die to this world and live to Christ. All this world could offer you for all your piety was death. Now Christ dies and you die in him. Now we live in his resurrection. This is the love of Christ that changes everything. This is the love of Christ that now fills us. Dead to the world we live in Christ! Now our fasting is not about impressing man, it is about the worship of God! It is not about manipulating him to do what we want him to do, but out of thanks for what he has done. It is about remembering that we are dead to this world. It has nothing but death to offer, but we are alive in Christ who gives us life freely with his cross, who loves us abundantly that we might love others as we have been loved, and forgive them there sins as our sins have been forgiven. Because there in that cross we lost our religion, we lost our life, we lost our piety, and there Christ our Lord saved our souls.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord amen.