Tonight, I will be leading an Ash Wednesday service at St. Andrew's. I always find myself pondering this interesting juxtaposition of a service wherein we hear a Gospel in which Jesus tells us, "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." (Matthew 6:1) and then have our foreheads marked with ashes. How can we reconcile these two seemingly opposing messages?
(If you are in the Dayton area, please stop reading now and come to St. Andrew's Episcopal Church on Salem Ave. for our Ash Wednesday service at 7:00pm to get the answer. Yes...that was a plug.)
I find an answer to that question in the prayer said immediately prior to the imposition of ashes:
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. -Book of Common Prayer, p. 265
As with many things in the church, the ashes are to be for us an outward sign that means nothing on its own. If we just come to church to have ashes put on our forehead, we are missing the point. Instead, there must be something going on in our hearts that correlates with this sign. Today, the ashes should be a sign, not of our piety, but of our penitence. They remind us that we will eventually die, and there is nothing we can do to prevent that from happening. They remind us that eternal life is a gift that we can only receive by acknowledging that everything we have done to "earn" it has been wrong simply because we cannot "earn" it.
With that, I invite you all to join me in the observance of another holy Lent.