(Jesus said to the 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. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” ~ Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
I'll admit that I've always been a little bit troubled by this passage being the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday. Most years when I preach I use one of the Old Testament texts instead.
I mean, on a day where we are having people make a public statement of their faith by putting some ashes on their foreheads, it seems strange to warn them to avoid practicing their piety before others.
In that moment when I receive Ashes - or when I give them out- there is something so deeply personal and intimate about the experience. It doesn't feel like something I'm doing for public approbation.
It feels like something happening in a private moment between myself and another child of God. The ashes may be the outward symbol, but for me, the touch, the connection, is the true moment of grace.
Ash Wednesday may be my favorite day on the church calendar after Christmas and Easter.
Easter, in fact, wouldn't hold the same meaning without the Ash Wednesday reminder of my own mortality and the intimate moment I have with God where healing and repentance become possible.
I am dust, and to dust I will return. Amen.