Ash Wednesday

There is, on occasion, a disconnect between our words and our actions. We smile through gritted teeth as we make polite conversation with someone we do not like. We have profound and prolonged conversations about liberty and justice as we calculate the smallest tip we can get away with giving to the server whose minimum wage is below minimum wage because her tips are expected to cover the difference between a week’s rent and being out on the street. We bemoan the state of the environment as we toss out our polystyrene coffee cups. We say, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you,” then walk away, unscathed.

Sometimes, there is a disconnect between the words that we hear at church and the way that we behave. In the gospel, Jesus admonishes us, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; when you give alms, do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing; When you pray, go into your room and shut the door, and pray in secret; when you fast, do not look dismal or disfigure your face, but put on oil and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others.”

And here we are, gathering to follow Jesus, to follow his commands and his example, to worship God in his Name; and here we are, gathered to pray in public, taking up an offering and displaying it before all eyes, covering our foreheads in ashes as a sign of our Lenten fast.

There is, on occasion, a disconnect between our words and our actions. The prophets called us out on it, time after time, proclaiming a fast of the heart and soul rather than a hard and fast rule, reminding us that our rituals are not rehearsed for their own purposes, nor for the purpose of showing the world how holy we are, but to remind ourselves of our need for God’s salvation, to rend our hearts, to bring us to our knees before God.

It is no good, say the prophets, says Jesus, fasting and praying and calling on God’s name in front of anyone who will listen, if you fail to love the listener, who is always beloved of God, love them as you love the sound of your own voice. Otherwise, all that praying and praise, fasting and sacrifice, is what Jesus calls hypocrisy.

And yet, it is not always and everywhere a bad thing that there is a disconnect between our words and our actions. Sometimes our better deeds are trying to drown out our words, trying to tell us something that we really need to hear, about forgiveness, and grace, and God.

We dance even though our heart is breaking, each step another crack in the fabric of our being, but we dance ourselves into hope and healing. We sing praises to God through gritted teeth when we are angry or hurting or sad. We are kind, when our minds use cruel words to persuade us not to be, because we would rather think of ourselves as good than otherwise.

The goal, of course, is always integration, the full involvement of our hearts, minds, bodies and souls in the same pursuit, the love of God and of our neighbour; but whether the gap between our words and our actions, our prayers and our practice, our intentions and our temptations; whether that gap is growing or diminishing may rest in the difference between hypocrisy and hope.

Hypocrisy, leads us further from the integration of our words and our actions, of our hearts and God’s heart; when we use our words to veil our intentions or excuse the inexcusable, we know what we are doing, and our Father, who sees our secrets, who sees what our hearts secretly hide, will call us out.

If our ashes are worn as a mask to cover our pride in our own righteous piety, our reluctance to repent, our unwillingness to work to change our hearts and minds to conform with the loving will of God, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to fight injustice and to refrain from fighting one another – if we wear our ashes instead of doing those things, to excuse ourselves from that call, well, then, we have fulfilled the prophets and proven the gospel, we have made Jesus’ point for him, fasting as the hypocrites do.

But what if what we are doing is about hope?

What if we acknowledge that we are sinners, hopeless hypocrites without Christ, and we mourn with ashes our sinfulness, but we mourn as those who have hope, because we are not without Christ’ love; what if we pray together out loud and in public because we wish to become the people who live their prayers; if we give alms hoping to grow in generosity, we sing psalms hoping to grow in praise; if we wear our ashes in the hope that they will remind us, by their very disobedience, of our sin, and consequently of our need for God’s grace, God’s loving kindness toward us and all that God has made, then maybe that is what we will find;

if we bear our ashes with hope, rather than with hypocrisy, because we know that line from the Psalm, that the sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:18).

And so, with broken and contrite hearts we pray, Create in us a new heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within us (Psalm 51:11)


About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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