1st March 2017, Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

by Revd Chris Palmer

Today’s liturgy seems to be indulging in double-think. The Gospel Reading for Ash Wednesday has a dig at the hypocrites who ‘disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting’. Then a few moments later – only separated from this reading by the sermon – we disfigure our faces to show others that we are fasting! We see no contradiction in this. It’s just what we do – just as Christians have for well over a thousand years. What’s even more bizarre is that we disfigure our faces and it doesn’t signify that we’re fasting at all – because the Lenten fast has become trivialised beyond belief, so that in most people’s minds it’s about chocolate. Our Orthodox Christian or Muslim neighbours would laugh in derision at this insipid version of fasting.

How can we rescue the ash cross on our foreheads from hypocrisy, from the charge that it’s a way of showing the world that we’ve been to church – and in the middle of the week at that – with all the ‘holier than thou’ attitude that that implies?

Jesus says that the key thing is to be seen not by others, but by God. That is by God who can’t be manipulated, coaxed, impressed, or persuaded; who is not suggestable, impressionable, or a good audience. God only sees honesty, the true me – never the performer, the player. In this sense our outer signs need to reflect an inner disposition that is truer than the outer reality.

This, of course, is the basis of a sacrament – which, as good Anglicans we know is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’. Ashing has never been called a sacrament by the church, but it has something of a sacramental quality. And just as Eucharist and Baptism are us putting ourselves into the flows of God’s grace, choosing to stand where God’s goodness overwhelms us. So similarly ashes and fasting and Lent are a way of standing deliberately in the way of God’s forgiveness. This forgiveness is assured; but its fruits are only felt when it is received with true penitence.

So, this command of Jesus not to be hypocrites, isn’t just about disfiguring faces – or blowing trumpets or praying on the street corners; it is a call to ensure authentic engagement with God’s forgiveness, deep openness to his grace

I think the danger of much piety is that it comes as a kind of false humility. So much of our story of faith is about an encounter with God that has brought growth and life to us. And sometimes telling parts of this story is helpful to others, because it inspires them in their own journey. Our Sunday evening Lent talks are a way of seeking this kind of testimony to encourage others. But there can also be a temptation to tell our story not for others good, but for our personal promotion. This can even be true when our story has painful or shameful parts. Even when aspects of our story are about God giving strength or forgiving sins – in other words when our story is about God – nevertheless, we can be proud of our healing or our progress in faith, so that the story we tell of God is subtly a story about ourselves. It is attention seeking; we enjoy the attention.

I think part of the danger here is relying on past graces. It’s a little bit like the spiritual version of living off your capital because no new income’s coming in. Of course the moments of enlightenment or intense fellowship with God will remain an inspiration to us, but the inspiration they give should be to continue to live this fellowship each day, to seek fresh light, grace today. I think this is key to what Jesus is saying in the Gospel. God is not going to be impressed by you reciting your earlier spiritual milestones. He knows them already – and in any case they are his graces, not your achievements. Authentic commitment to God is the almsgiving, the prayer, the fasting of this day, this Lent. And this isn’t something to boast about – after all it’s not an achievement yet; there’s every chance that you will fail and fall flat on your face. And probably that’s not a bad thing: it will stop you getting arrogant and uppity about Lenten devotion and rely again on God’s grace.

I said earlier that it’s about true penitence – true repentance. What is this? It’s not wishful thinking. It’s not a vague sorrow, or a generalised desire that things would be different. Anyone who’s ever been an addict knows this kind of repentance. It is the scourge of good intention, but backed by no real change in daily behaviour. It has no good effects. Authentic commitment to change means choosing different patterns, forming different habits, doing what it takes to actually live differently, rather than merely what we’d like it to take. And all of us are addicts in some way. We all indulge in compulsive patterns of behaviour or ways of relating that defeat us time and again. Even the hypocritical craving to win people’s admiration by displaying our piety is deep rooted, a compulsion hard to break, despite the havoc it plays with our relationship with God.

Three times in the Gospel Jesus says, ‘your father who sees in secret will reward you…’ What is this reward? It’s not earthly honour; God doesn’t give out medals. And it’s not just about getting to heaven either – though heaven is an extension of it. God’s reward is the fruits of forgiveness: deep communion with God; God’s life growing within us; a sense of living true to who we are; of joy in fulfilling our vocation; the sense of ease and at-homeness in fellowship with other Christians. These sound vague and dilute to those who haven’t experienced them. But for those who have, they are the source of profound joy. May that be God’s gift to us this Lent.