One of the great Presbyterian preachers of the past generation, Horace Allen, used to talk about how uncomfortable it is to hear the Gospel of Ash Wednesday right before ashes are administered. He’d put it this way: “So, first you proclaim the words of Our Lord: And whenever you fast, do not look dismal and disfigure your faces, and then you say: now kindly please come up and disfigure your faces.”
A seeming irony, but one that doesn’t go very deep. As usual, Jesus is not really giving a command that can be fulfilled by following one specific outward rule, by controlling what you do to the skin on your face. He’s not a simplistic thinker like that. Instead he’s talking about the attitude of the will. What Jesus is warning against is using self-presentation as a way to feel superior to others. In his day if you showed off that you were keeping a fast for God, that self-presentation won you acclaim; you would likely feel very proud to go out in public visibly marked with a sign that you were under a religious vow of fasting.
I doubt there are many people here who feel like that about the blotch you’ll have put on your foreheads when you leave. If you will be out in public in any way, my wager is you’re much more likely to feel a little embarrassed about your black stain than proud of it. The era when American culture admired the Christian way of life and honored its symbols is over; few people have any idea what this sign of ashes even means anymore. Lots will just think you forgot to clean your face.
As so often with Jesus, we need to read his specific commands looking for the intention of the will he is getting at:
Whenever you give alms, he says today, do not sound a trumpet before you.
And whenever you pray, do not…stand and pray at the street corners, so that you may be seen.
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal and disfigure your faces so as to show others.
What’s the intention he’s looking for? What kind of person would you be if it would never occur to you to do any of those kinds of things? One that doesn’t need to feed your own ego with self-presentation, but is free to act for God alone.
So in our day, it may actually fulfill the point of Jesus’ teaching better if you deliberately do leave the ashes on your face, to feel that ego embarrassment that comes with caring what others think. I think it also fulfills his point to have to receive ashes in the contactless way we are doing it this year, from individual cups. It’s awkward. It will probably not work as well as having the clergy put our thumbs on your foreheads. Your cross may not be as well-formed and dark as it might have been last Ash Wednesday.
But again – all of this makes it just a little less possible for us to feel pleased with ourselves that we are keeping Lent. And a little more aware of the sting of our own egos wanting to be gratified, and thus a little more able to notice our need for God’s grace. And noticing our need for God’s grace is what this season is all about. So I invite you to stand now as we enter into this holy season, and then we will kindly come on up, and disfigure our faces.