There is no other day when it is so hard to be a Christian, I think. Every Ash Wednesday, churches around the world read the same passage from the 6th chapter of Matthew. “Beware of practicing your piety before others,” warns Jesus. “When you pray, when you fast, when you give to the poor, do it in secret, where no one can see you.” And so we who have gathered to hear that message respond by wiping ashes on each other’s foreheads so that everyone we meet the rest of the day will know where we’ve been.
The day we walk around all afternoon feeling awkward and maybe even a bit embarrassed for this strange black cross emblazoned on our faces, Jesus tells us to practice our faith in private.
Most of us are polite people, we like to keep our faith to ourselves. We have no trouble praying in private, the alternative of praying loudly out in the open scares us to death. Sure, in certain circles, we feel okay sharing something of what we believe, but we all know the limits, those unspoken boundaries where faith-sharing becomes tacky or inappropriate.
But then, against our better judgment, we walk back to our offices or our classrooms or our families with an ashen badge, telling everyone we meet in no uncertain terms that we belong to Jesus. The checkout lady at the grocery store, the waiter who gets your order wrong, the gentleman who cuts you off in traffic—they can all take one strange look at you and know what you claim to believe.
Today, when we step out from the shadows to proclaim our faith, it is not with a triumphant song, or a confident shout, but a humble whisper: apart from God, we are dust, and every moment of this life is delivering us back to dust.
That may seem fatalistic or depressing, which is why so many choose not to follow Jesus. If you’re trying to figure out what’s in it for you, you’ll never hear what you’re looking for. But the truth is, it is the most liberating gospel ever preached.
Because we serve a God who leaves his fingerprint on our foreheads, we have a God who breathes life into our dust, we have a God who wears our skin and walks head first into our death.
There is no other day when it is so hard to be a Christian, I think. Because there is no other day when it’s so clear what it means, and what it doesn’t mean.
Rev. Brian Erickson