Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Psalm 103:8-14 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 Matthew 71-6, 16-21
In Old Testament times the practice was to draw attention to oneself when grieving, remorseful. There are multiple references, to people tearing their clothing after learning of the death of someone close or suffering deep regret for something they have done. Tearing one’s clothes was a dramatic public display of a person’s deep emotions and suffering.
In the gospel, Jesus warns against public displays of piety, saying, “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.” He tells us not to make a show of our giving, our praying, or our fasting, “do not,” he says, “be like the hypocrites who sound a trumpet [when they give alms] . . . stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, disfigure their faces [when they fast] to show others they are fasting.” Instead, he tells us to give in private, to pray in private, and “put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.”
If we take what Jesus is saying too literally, we must wash the ash from our forehead when we leave today, because it makes a public statement that we have been to church. However, that would be missing the point of this teaching. This service is not for show, the ash placed on our foreheads is placed there as a reminder of our mortality – “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and it is a reminder that the way of the cross offers us life.
We speak of Lent as being a penitential season, but what does it mean to be penitential? We could substitute the words contrite, regretful, or even remorseful for having sinned. We do not reflect on our sins during Lent because we deserve to suffer to be filled with regret or shame. Instead, we name our sins (things done and not done) as a step toward change. It is the first step to repentance.
In our reading from Joel, the prophet announces the day of judgment is upon us, then says, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
“Return to me with ALL your heart . . . rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Jesus repeatedly warns against doing as the hypocrites do: giving, praying, and fasting so they can be seen doing these things. He tells us to do these things in secret, for it is what is in our hearts – which others cannot see, that matters. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” Jesus says, “where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . . for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he says. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” Joel says. Lent is the season when we are to examine our hearts. What do we treasure? Where are our hearts? There is only one way that leads to life, and that is the way of the cross – which is to say living a life of service to others.
The cross (or smug) I will make upon your foreheads with ash is both a reminder that this life will end and that it is Christ that offers us true life. What is it you treasure most?
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, you created us in your image that we might love other as you love us. Help us, we pray, to use this season of Lent to reflect upon our lives and what we treasure most. Help us then, to commit our lives to doing your will by building your kingdom in this world, filling it with your love. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.