Isaiah 58:1-12+Psalm 103-8-14
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10+Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Shortly after the Christmas season ended, if not a little before, clergy network social media took off with possible strategies for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Everything from little containers of ashes for home use to COVID-test-length Q-Tips to make the sign of the cross at a distance were suggested, as was sprinkling ashes over the head, which is probably the most biblically accurate way of imposing ashes. As has been the case over the past year, figuring out a way to maintain our in-person customs while observing the seasons remotely has been a challenge.
But why do we need to do things exactly the way we have always done them? There is nothing about our current situation that resembles the way we have always done things. Trying to make that not so only emphasizes how true and real the changes are.
So rather than try to create some kind of “normal” this Ash Wednesday, and with the guidance of our bishop and diocesan protocols, I decided to forego ashes altogether. Just as we begin a season during which we are called to fasting, it is not inappropriate to begin by fasting from ashes, too.
The Isaiah text calls us to a different kind of fasting, anyway. The people of Israel complain that God does not pay attention whether they fast or not or whether they make sacrifices or not, so why bother? God tells the people that they fast and yet continue to mistreat the people around them; they do not demonstrate the kind of humility that sacrifice and fasting require. And so God says
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
God is much more interested in a fast that is less focused on making ourselves look good to God and others, a fast that takes the concerns of the poor, the needy, and the oppressed seriously and attempts to right the injustice.
Matthew echoes this when he admonishes his listeners not to make a show of how pious they are. God knows the sincerity of our hearts, and it is to and for God that we humble ourselves. Yet we cannot just humble ourselves before God without attending to the needs of those around us, not for show, but with sincerity and love.
And please don’t miss the repetition that Matthew uses:
Whenever you give alms…
Whenever you pray…
Whenever you fast…
These are not sometimes things for followers of Jesus. These are not occasional activities or optional ones. To pray, to fast, and to give alms are constitutive of the Christian life. Without them, one can’t truly call oneself Christian. None of them is to show the world how Christian we are, though. Praying, fasting, and giving of our monetary wealth are ways of approaching God, of asking God to create clean hearts within us by the sacrifices of our broken and contrite hearts.
Ash Wednesday, with or without ashes, is an invitation to return, to remember who and whose we are, and to dedicate us anew to the kind of fast God asks of us so that we may all be called , in the words of the prophet, “the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:12). May it be so.