It has always been curious to me that Ash Wednesday traditionally includes a scripture (Matthew 6) that tells us to do all this stuff in secret, giving money, praying, fasting, and then we put a big black mark on our foreheads so show we belong to Jesus, a very non-secret thing to do, it seems.
It even says that we are supposed to wash our face so no one will know we’re fasting, then we actually make our face dirty, which seems to me to be pretty much the opposite.
Which is it? Are we supposed to be some kind of “secret Christians,” or are we supposed to wear it on our sleeve, or rather, on our face?
I think the answer lies in the text itself. It is the “so that” part of Jesus’ words that we need to pay attention to. It’s about our motivation for doing what we do. If we are doing good stuff so that others will notice it and think we’re so cool, then that’s not okay.
Jesus is saying, Giving money to those in need so that someone will see it and say, “Oh isn’t she so generous!” isn’t a good reason to give. Praying out in public so that others will notice and think, “Oh isn’t he so pious!” is not a good reason to pray. Looking hungry while fasting so that someone will say, “Wow, look how hungry he is, he must really love God!” is not a good reason to fast.
So maybe we can expand that to ashes on the forehead in order to say, wearing ash on your forehead so that others will see it and be impressed by your piety is not a good reason to wear ash on your forehead.
When it comes to motivation, only the individual knows. You can say that you are motivated by any number of things, but when it really comes down to it, only you know what motivates you.
So really the only thing I can do is tell you why I wear ash on my forehead on Ash Wednesday. I do it because I need a tangible reminder of how fragile life is. And though I cannot see the mark, I am aware that it is there. It means that I am dust, I am comprised of the earth, my life withers and fades, and the best that I can do is to live this short, insignificant, fleeting life in a way that is pleasing to God, in a way that spreads love, offers grace, and works for justice. The best I can do is to live in such a way that things are better off than they were when I arrived on the scene.
That’s just me. Maybe you have a different reason. That’s cool. Or maybe it’s just not something you need to do at all. That’s also cool. Ashy foreheads are certainly not a prerequisite for heaven.
Next Wednesday evening Melissa will put some ash on my head and tell me that I am dust. I’ll do the same for her. Then together we’ll invite anyone who wants to come forward so that we can put some ash on their heads, too.
And we won’t ask a single one why they’re doing it.