Washing up (An Ash Wednesday Reflection)

It’s Ash Wednesday. Are we listening?

Many of us will find our way to church this morning or this evening for the imposition of ashes. Many churches now even do ‘drive through’ or ‘drop in’ ashes for busy folk on their way to or from work. It’s becoming increasingly common to see people out and about with that grey smudge on their foreheads as they work, or shop — last year, there was even a political pundit who appeared on national television bearing this outward sign of repentance. Ash Wednesday feels like it becomes a bigger deal every year. But are we paying attention? Are we listening to what this rite is saying?

The Gospel reading today from Matthew 6 tells us all we need to know: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” Jesus says. “For then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” And again, “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.” One more time, with feeling: “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.”

This Gospel is a warning against performative piety, spirituality rooted in a desire to be seen — in the ego — instead of in love. This is why I’ve always been a big advocate of the tradition that insists that we wash off the ashes the moment we leave the church. The act of washing off the ashes completes the act: We come in repentance, but that repentance is between us and God and for no one else to know or see. Or, rather, our repentance is our witness in the world, but that witness is about our life changed from our encounter with God’s grace, not a smudge on our forehead.

Whether or not you follow this particular tradition, it is a beautiful icon of the spirit with which we should enter Lent. Whatever transpires between our hearts and God during this season is not for public consumption. If we give to charities, that’s our business, not our neighbours’. If we abstain from a food or drink to which we have some undue attachment, that’s our business, not our neighbours’. Similarly, our neighbours’ Lenten journeys are not our business. As the Eastern Orthodox like to say this time of year, “Keep your eyes on your own plate.”

Not only are our Lenten disciplines personal, but it’s also important to remember that they aren’t in and of themselves the point. There’s an bizarre sense in some parts of Christianity that Lent is a time to wallow in our sinfulness. But as I’ve written before and will write again, Lent isn’t about wallowing. It isn’t about darkness, it’s about light. It is about repentance, but repentance is far more about transformation than it is about feeling sorry. (Again, this isn’t to say that feeling guilty is a bad thing when we’ve wronged someone, but that feeling guilty is just the first step to righting that wrong and doing right in the future.) 

To keep with the Ash Wednesday theme, Lent isn’t about proving to ourselves or the world (far less to God) that we’re dirty; it’s about washing up to get ready for Easter. It is, in the language of my childhood, a “getting clean bath.” And if we miss this we run the risk of missing the whole point, not just of the season but of our faith. The passage from Isaiah 58 that’s appointed for Morning Prayer today says it perfectly:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
   Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
   and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
   and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
   will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
   a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
   and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
   a day acceptable to the Lord?”

Isaiah clearly wasn’t on board with performative acts of repentance any more than Jesus was! But he continues:

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

The fast, the Lent, God calls us to is the fast that transforms us, the fast that bears good fruit in the world.

And so, as we approach the long road of Lent this Ash Wednesday, let us remember to wash ourselves of all the dirt and grime that’s accumulated in our hearts (and bodies too for that matter). Let us remember that it isn’t about the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of our fasts or intentions, but about the fruit that they bear. Let us remember that it really isn’t about us at all.

Wishing you all a sudsy and scrubby Lenten season!

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