The Church’s scriptures for Ash Wednesday seem to present to us a perplexing contradiction. Consider that the Old Testament prophet Joel insists that the Lord’s people present their faith publicly: “Blow a trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; Gather the people, notify the congregation. ” Further, the Apostle Paul testifies that we are “ambassadors for Christ”—that is, public representatives to the culture concerning the identity of the Lord. Contrast both these texts with the words of the Lord Jesus in the Gospel, which seem to indicate that public presentations of the faith are unseemly and what is required for authenticity in our expressions of religious devotion is that they remain private and unseen.
Well, which is it then? Public or private?
Today’s Gospel for Ash Wednesday is often interpreted as supporting a cultural assumption that one’s faith is best kept to oneself and that religious practice should be sequestered from public life. But Christ’s concern is not really about favoring our cultural assumptions in regard to the relationship of religion to public life. Instead, the Lord’s concern is about hypocrisy and using one’s religious convictions as a means toward the fulfillment of some ulterior motive—like receiving honors or public affirmation. In this respect, the spiritual predicament the Lord identifies is not so much about whether or not religious fervor is best kept private and in conformity to secularist mores, but whether or not we have given careful consideration to the motivations that undergird our religious convictions and practices.
It is perhaps easier to be a hypocrite in private rather than in public, but one can still be a hypocrite in both settings. It is not the setting that is the primary concern of the Lord, but who we are.
Christ’s point is that if your public expressions of piety (and, might I add, service) are meant to aggrandize your sense of self, to make it appear to others that you are better than those folks you think less of, then it would be better for you to retreat from the world and in your isolation learn the true meaning of religious devotion: that it is not about you and what you want, but it is about God and what he wants for you.
It is this sincerity about our motives that orders the great disciplines of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—all of which have both a private and public dimension.
The season of Lent is, after all, a time of intense recollection concerning the state of our souls. We have, all of us, fallen short. “All have sinned,” as the Apostle Paul reminds us. His insight is universal. There are no exceptions (except for two—Christ and his Mother are members of a very exclusive minority).
And, as painful as it is to hear, all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, are hypocrites in terms of the practice of the faith. We know what the Lord expects of us, and we also know that such expectations are hard. It is easier just to appear to be good or virtuous, and it is particularly easy to receive the benefits that come with the appearance of being a disciple of the Lord rather than making the sacrifices to be one in actual fact.
A stark confrontation with truth is required of us during Lent. Quite frankly, this would be just too much to bear if not for the fact that Christ assures us that he will come to us, not simply as a teacher or a judge, but as a Savior who is ready and willing to forgive us and restore us to communion with him.
The truth of who we are, what we have become, what we have done, what we have failed to do is necessary because without such a reckoning we would remain in the dark place of denial, and in that dark place, we would languish in misery. But this reckoning is meant to bring us out of the darkness, not deeper into it. Lent, if it is observed rightly, is a spiritual passage into forgiveness and the possibility of a second chance.
On Ash Wednesday, we accept a mark of ashes on our forehead, a mark that will distinguish us publicly as sinners. What we know privately about ourselves we show to the world. But that we are sinners is not the only truth that we display. The mark of ashes is a sign to the world that we have received something extraordinary and undeserved from the Lord Jesus. What have we received? A word of forgiveness that is creative, living, and effective, which, if accepted, gives to us and to the world what we need most: the gift of a new start and the unexpected grace of another chance.
This piece was originally published on February 10, 2016, on WordonFire.org.