Warning: this post is provocative. If you like wearing the ashen cross on your forehead all day, if you relish in the strange looks you get from coworkers, grocery store clerks, and strangers on the street, you may be highly offended by this post. And good for you. That's the point.
Yesterday, I wrote about how important the ashes of Ash Wednesday are. I used the word "beg" to describe how strongly I feel about people coming to church. And you've still got plenty of time to find a service. Again, I beg you to go. As some people have noted, "Get your ash in church!" (Ha, ha.) As I wrote yesterday, I think the ashes of today are a necessary, counter-cultural confrontation of our mortality. Without coming face to face with all that is lacking in us, we cannot appreciate the magnitude of God's mercy. But today I want to take that theology of grace even further and suggest that it's time to wipe the ashes off.
One cannot be prideful about one's modesty. One cannot boast of being humble. To do so unravels the claim. The predication negates the initiating quality of the subject. Likewise, we cannot worthily acknowledge our wretchedness and lament our sins and then parade around town to show other people how righteous we are. We cannot admit that we are dust and to dust we shall return and then openly demonstrate our superiority. It is nonsensical to say, "You should admire how remorseful I am for my sin." Either we're sorry, or we're not. Either we lament our pride, or we don't. Either we come to the altar to beg for God's mercy, or we stand up and show other people how great we are. It doesn't make sense to do it both ways.
The gospel lesson for today could not make it any clearer. Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them." In case we missed it, he goes on to say that we should pray in secret, fast in secret, and give alms in secret. Those are the three principle Lenten disciplines. How can we make a right start of this season if we're undoing everything Jesus told us to do?
If you're still wearing your ashen cross, go wipe it off. (Go on. Don't wait. You can finish this post later.) To wear the cross is to say to the world, "My piety matters." But Ash Wednesday is about saying to God, "There is nothing within me that is worthy of you. Only you and your love matter."
So, yes, I beg you to go to church. I beg you to come to the altar and receive the ashen cross and be reminded of your mortality--your sinfulness, your brokenness, your wretchedness. And then quickly go and wipe it off. Carry the reminder in your heart, but don't let anyone see it. Otherwise, we undo everything we proclaim this day that Christ did for us.