Many churches throughout the world use a Bible reading schedule called a "lectionary." It's just a fancy word meaning "selected readings." Posts like this reflect on the readings for an upcoming Sunday or other Church holiday, as found in the historic one-year lectionary.
Our traditional Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is from Matthew chapter six. It has always struck me as a surprising choice, since it talks about not doing things so as to be seen by others. What's surprising about that? As I write this, it happens to be Ash Wednesday, and my forehead bears a cross made from palm ashes saved from a Palm Sunday service. Granted, it's really cold today and the cross is likely to be erased because I'll end up putting on a hat when I go outside. But there's a visible sign applied to many people on Ash Wednesday. That would seem to contradict the idea of doing works of devotion or righteousness in order to be seen by others.
Perhaps, though, it isn't so contradictory after all. When we bear the ashes, or when we endure other things as a reminder of our hunble state before God, we remain visible to our neighbors. Jesus is more reminding us that what we do before God we should do in a state of un-self-consciousness. We take no public notice of our appearance which may be caused by an act of devotion. Rather, we go on with life as if nothing has happened.
Having a physical sign, such as the ashes, applied to us, make this more difficult. We may be tempted to remember it and act in such a way as to draw attention to our acts of devotion. Jesus tells us not to do that. We have done it before God. Granted, others may see what is going on. In the same way, if we go on a lengthy fast, people will notice we lose weight. If we devote ourselves to special times of prayer people will notice we are not available at some times we would normally be around. Our decisions have consequences. Some of them are visible.
The purpose of our devotion, however, is not so as to be seen by others. It's so as to humble ourselves before the living God, knowing that he will work in us according to his good favor.
Did you receive ashes? I hope you were able to forget that you were walking around with a smudge on your face. It's for God to see, not for you to show others.
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