Homily for Ash Wednesday
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be”
-- Matthew 6:21
The annual exhortation to fasting, almsgiving, and prayer is upon us. Annually we read Jesus’ admonition to go about this work and devotion quietly, in private, without making a fuss. We are not to make a show of our almsgiving, we are not to be ostentatious in our praying, and we are not to disfigure our faces so that other will see we are fasting. And yet, here we are kneeling in prayer, confessing our faults publicly, receiving the imposition of ashes, which we shall wear out into the streets as a sign that Lent is once again upon us. There is a dissonance in all of this, is there not?
I recently spoke with a gentleman who told me that as a child, he was told all good Anglicans wiped the cross off their foreheads when they left church on Ash Wednesday, unlike those terrible Catholics who wore their ashes with pride throughout the day for all to see. Was this really Catholic pride and was this really Protestant humility. I doubt it very much. I think that the pious Catholic had a very different motive, and that the Protestant was little more than an iconoclast. Yes, at first glance there seems to be a dissonance in what we do today with the words of Jesus, but as we explore both the words of Jesus and our response more deeply, I think that we shall come to a deeper understanding than the caricatures of proud Catholics and humble Protestants.
Where is your heart? This is the question that Jesus is asking us. The admonition against practicing our piety before others is really about the state of our heart. Do we long for praise, acknowledgement, recognition, and reward? Jesus is warning us that sometimes the outward trappings of our religious practice are served up to meet that oh so human need for approval. We long to be liked, respected, and admired; yet we are fundamentally insecure creatures. We store up rewards on earth, we display our strength, our perfection, and our wealth before others in order that we might convince people that we are all right. And more than all right, we are perfect. What does this say about our hearts? It suggests that there is something missing and that we are trying fill that void or mend that wound with external trappings. These things are all on the outside, though. That is not where our heart is meant to be.
As with many of the sayings of Jesus in St. Matthew’s Gospel, choices are often presented as stark opposites. There is a temptation here to read the words of Jesus in simplistic terms, but viewed amongst the varied woven tapestry that is the Holy Scriptures, we sometimes admonished to wear our faith on our sleeves, as Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew, “Do not hide your light under a bushel,” whilst in other places, like today’s passage from the same gospel, he encourages us to practice our piety in secret. The corollary of all this must be not that outward piety is bad and inward piety is good, or vice versa, depending on the passage you read; rather the corollary must be that with our hearts set on the things of God, the inward and outward life of faith will both fall into place.
Consider an analogy. Think for a moment of a close relationship that you share with someone, a spouse, a dear friend and confidant, a family member, or even a counselor, spiritual director or priest. Any intimate relationship will be multi-layered and multi-faceted. In the intimacy of a relationship there are things that you will share with each other that you will not share with the rest of the world. There are some things that are meant only for the two of you and your personal intimacy. And that is just fine. At the same time, any intimate relationship will bear fruit in the world, and there will be things about your relationship that will be shared and celebrated with the community around you. We celebrate our relationships and covenants both privately and publicly. If our hearts are set aright on the good and we live our covenant relationships faithfully, then where are hearts are, there too will be our treasure. Wherever we live out depths of covenant love and friendship with authenticity, there we will experience richness and blessing. The same is true of our life of faith. The sign of the cross in ash upon our foreheads, giving to those in need, and being intentional about our public prayer is the external fruit of living out a deep and intimate relationship with a loving God.
There is one hitch, though, and that is where we come to this day, Ash Wednesday. Try as we might, sinners that we are, we are prone to break covenants, betray confidence, hurt those we love and with whom we share our deepest intimacy. We often use our intimate relationships for selfish gain and in doing so we can cause great harm to those we love, and to ourselves. It seems to me that this is what Jesus is speaking about. Thus, when we use the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving to direct attention to ourselves rather than nurture the deep intimacy of heart speaking to heart, we abuse the sacred mystery of humanity and the divine touching each other.
But herein we encounter the good news, as well. It is not humanity that has reached the heavens and touched God, rather it is God who has reached down and touched humanity. In the Word made flesh, God has placed his heart amongst his people. The heart of God is where is treasure is, and we are his treasure. In spite of all the ways we abuse his holy religion, in spite of all the ways we take advantage of his intimate presence for our own aggrandizement, God still counts us his treasure enough to place his heart amongst us. God longs for a loving relationship with his people, and persists again and again, even as we turn again and again from his intimacy and love.
Thus, to keep a holy Lent is not about whether or not we wear a cross proudly or wipe it away humbly, it is asking about where our heart will be, in the midst of the more profound reality of where God’s heart already is. In the intimacy of hearts meeting, human and divine, we will know treasure in the depths of our being and treasure in our common life with all God’s children.
c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves