Ash Wednesday 2020.The Benefice Service, Barrowden
“When you fast…wash your face.” Mt.6.17.
Contrary to Scripture?
In a few moments, we will kneel at the altar rail for the Imposition of Ashes. Will we be disobeying scripture by doing so? On first reading the wearing of ashes is being outlawed by St. Matthew. Why then are we doing it?
Matthew was a Jew who was called by Jesus from the tax office to follow him. He knew the Jewish tradition inside out, including their pattern of fasting which – as we have heard – was very public: standing on the street corners with long prayers, looking miserable and a bit scruffy. It was these empty gestures which Jesus criticised yet he didn’t come to abolish but to fulfil the Law. And we too are called to fulfil the Jewish law, including the call to repentance and we will do so with Christ, in Christ, through Christ, and in the company of one another.
The Jews in Jesus’ day wore ash on their heads but attitudes were soon to change in the church. After the resurrection and the growing popularity of the Christian church, the Romans were very edgy about this new group. The cross was a dangerous sign to be wearing and could result in arrest or worse. So the Christians adopted a secret sign – the fish – the Greek for which was an acrostic for Jesus: ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’. We can find it today on Christian pottery and in the catacombs. It was only after Christianity became legal with the Emperor Constantine that the cross became popular – and so it remains to this day, or almost so. It reminds us of the hope into which we are baptised and in which we stand together, with that invisible cross on our foreheads. Ash Wednesday is one of those principal days in the Christian Year when we are called to stand together. This cross reminds us that we are dust but dust destined for glory. It is still a gathering point for revolution. We only have to reflect upon the fate of Christians in China, Russia or Pakistan.
There is strength in numbers, however we identify with each other.
Just before the birth of Jesus, the Romans had to tackle a revolution in their own ranks led by a gladiator called Spartacus. The Romans were desperate to stamp this out so rounded up their gladiators and demanded that Spartacus identify himself. Otherwise they would all be put to death. He did. He stood up and acknowledged his name. But then, so did others, all of whom were called Spartacus, until the whole hillside was bristling with men called Spartacus. It’s an inspiring story and one beloved of revolutionaries. That story has been immortalized not just in film but in an overture by Saint Saens. It has a dark, brooding start in a minor key but then gathers to a finale with crashing percussion, brass and trumpets.
And so Christ’s will is for us to carry through Lent identifying with him and with each other to the glorious finale which is Easter Day. Jesus used the word ‘hypocrite’ to describe those who faked their fast. The word means actor, pretender, dissembler. And we can fall under that criticism too if we are not prepared to see this journey through.
A hypocrite would not change. He or she would carry on just as before. But the cross calls us to repent or change direction; to take on board the way of the cross. It is never too late. Normally one has to change and change again; to keep on following the cross, with the support of Christ and one another. Newman said, ‘To live is to change and to be perfect is to change often’.
This cross of dust reminds us of our mortality. It also reminds us of that invisible cross of baptism which – like Spartacus – binds us together in glory.