In Matthew 6 Jesus offers some tips on how we should and shouldn’t do a few things. He advises that when we give to the needy, that we don’t make a big show of it. He suggests that we even go so far as to give with one hand without the other even knowing about it. He advises that when we pray we go into a quiet room. He advises that when we fast we wash our face and make ourselves appear healthy so that others do not know we are fasting. Jesus tells us that God knows all we do in secret and will reward us. He is cautioning the religious leaders who like to stand before men when they pray or give. Jesus says they have received their reward – just recognition from men. Jesus concludes by summarizing why we should give, pray and fast as he advises – because then we are storing up treasures in heaven.
At first I thought this an odd reading on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Lent is traditionally a season of self-examination and reflection, a season where we give something up or choose to do something ‘extra’ for others. But then I realized the cautions of Matthew 6 are for us too. Today is a day when many will wear the mark of the ashen cross on the forehead as a reminder of our faith. If the cross on our forehead is simply a mark of religious piety, then we have already received our reward in full too. If it is a personal reminder of the inner transformation taking place then it is between us and God, not as a show for the world. If our inner change is leading to greater worship and praise of God and into humble acts of kindness to our fellow man, then we are beginning to store up those treasures in heaven. Now it is not about keeping score on a secret scorecard. It is about living as a child of God. As with Abraham, it is through right living that we too are counted righteous.
The ashen cross on our forehead can also be a conversation starter. If a non-believer asks about it, we can explain the meaning. In our church we use Psalm 51:10 as we administer ashes: “Create in your child a pure heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within him/her.” Lent is a season of giving to God and of sacrifice to remind ourselves of the repentance we must offer. The ashen cross is also a mark of ownership – to say that we belong to Christ. Ashes are used to remind us that we are mortal and also that Jesus chose to die for our sins. As we go through our day today, may we allow that inner light of Christ to shine forth. May the cross we bear in our heart (and maybe the one we bear on our forehead too) be a sign of our inward piety and may it also be a reminder that we are called to be spent in faithful service to our God and to our fellow man.