Lent is upon us, a time for spiritual spring cleaning. Today I imposed ashes on the foreheads of some fifty Stanley saints, and there were many other such services in and around these precints today.
I have no way of knowing, exactly, what all of those who were "imoposed" did immediately afterwards--here or anywhere else--but I am guessing that some of the faithful went to the nearest lavatory and washed-off the smudge. They were on their way to work or the Y; they had to go to the store of the school and they did not want to draw attention to themselves or what they had been doing beforehand. Who can blame them? I know from experience, and some of it today's, that going into the gas station, say, or the Hardee's with a black cross on your brow is a sure way to draw stares and smirks.
Those who practice today's discipline should be careful, then--for if it is a bit of cowardice to remove so quickly the sign of the season, it can be pride to wear it too long or to obviously. Or for the wrong reasons.
Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them..." which is not the same thing as if Jesus had said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others at all." Jesus seems to want us to practice our piety, to prove our faith, either by taking up a cross or taking down an idol or speaking a word of testimony when we are called to account for the faith that is in us (see also I Peter 3). No, the point is why we do what we do... as a performance for others, or as a demonstration to God.
Years ago, my dad served a small Baptist congregation in Milton, TN, a town so small even God may not have known where it was. First Sunday night of every month, those gathered had "business meeting" before singing and preaching began. It was a poor congregation, in a poor part of rural Tennessee, but for about four months running one man would stand up in the service, pull the corner of a $100 bill out of his pocket and declare, "I have $100 here that I will give to the church if another person will match it," and then he would sit down, smugly, because no one had taken up the challenge. He was smug before hand, too, confident in his challenge--he surely knew no one else in the church had a C-note. Dad put up with this about as long as he could. One night, before business meeting, he gathered some of the other men in the hall, all of them as sick of this charade as Dad, and they pooled their resources to collect, barely, $100. That night when the fellow stood up and showed his...uh...corner, Dad said, "Done! Seven of us have come up with money to match yours." The man, of course, immediately backed down, said that the challenge was for one other person to match it and therefore he was rescinding the offer.
The man seemed uninterested in reward other than that of having his poor neighbors know he was a bit richer than they. His pledge of support for the church was bogus, a ploy--not for love of God or his work but for love of self, or so it seemed to the rest of us.
John Baillie says that, sometimes at least, our care of others is a refined form of self-care. Jesus says that our acts of piety, if we are not careful, have little to do with the honor we want to do God and everything to do with the honor we want others to do us. Lent could be one of the times when we do that.
I encourage my people to wear their ashes all day, Ash Wednesday. I encourage them to wear a cross necklace--not jewelry--for the days of Lent. To practice their piety, to prove to themselvse and God they can make testimony in an increasingly pagan culture--but to beware lest they are doing it not in order to be saying something about God but to say something about themselves, or to have others say it for them. Lest, in other words, they too quickly receive their reward.