Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
For the past several Sunday evenings I’ve been hosting viewings of the hit TV show, “The Walking Dead.” During the commercial breaks and after the show I engage students on questions of theology and ethics as we observe the slow decay of humanity in and around the characters. The characters, who are in an ongoing fight for survival against zombies and other human beings, are very aware of their mortality. They are neither able to hide from nor ignore that fact. While the show’s title, “The Walking Dead,” first points to the zombies, the title of the show is much deeper than that. “The Walking Dead,” characterized by the show’s traumatized characters, is a metaphor for the human condition of death.
The sign of the cross in ashes serves to remind us of our mortality—that we are always walking towards death—an inward truth of which all human beings are aware, but often push down inside themselves to conveniently ignore. It is in this secret, internal place that the Father rewards those who are spiritually prepared to meet him in the depths of their souls.
Jesus said, “…When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret.” “ Whenever you pray,” Jesus said, “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” “…When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,” not for the sake of others, but for the purpose of being seen by the Father who is in secret, and sees in secret.
Wait, what? Isn’t this Ash Wednesday? You know the day when many Christians receive the visible sign of the cross in ashes on their forehead? Isn’t that the opposite of secret?
In the times of the Old Testament, ashes were used as a public sign of mourning, repentance and humility before God. Today we bear the ash cross on the forehead as an outward sign of our mortality and as an inward sign that points to the spiritual grace given to us by God through our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
God came amongst us, as one of us in the person of Jesus, to turn our focus from sin and death to a focus fixed on repentance and everlasting life. Jesus came to create a new state of being for humankind—the inward, human condition of repentance.
Anything that distracts you from the already-existing reward of God’s love and grace, fractures the relationship with God who unceasingly calls His people to return to him in the secret places of the soul. We are called to “give up” that which distracts and consumes us, and we are called to be mindful of the times when we turn our hearts and our minds away from focusing on the will of the creator—to the will of the created being.
Whatever sacrificial discipline you choose to engage during Lent, remember that it is to be used as a vehicle to drive you into deeper relationship with Jesus.
During this season of Holy Lent, you and I are called to journey with Jesus in the wilderness, and to prepare our souls by “giving up” more of ourselves, in order to make space for God in the secret places of our hearts. The wilderness experience is not meant to be a place of stagnation. After forty days in the wilderness and overcoming the temptations by Satan, Jesus emerged to begin his ministry in Galilee. The wilderness experience served a purpose in forming Jesus into his divine purpose as servant leader through teaching, preaching and healing. How will you use your 40 days in the wilderness to continue nurturing yourself into the full stature of Christ? How will you use your 40 days in the wilderness to be more alive in Christ Jesus?
As you depart from this place, expect unusual attention. Some well-meaning person in the grocery
line may whisper to you that you have a smudge on your forehead and may try to assist you in
removing it; some others may observe your forehead and smile. Some may ask you what the ash
cross means? All of the aforementioned encounters invite engagement with another person, and
opens wide the possibility for sharing the good news of God in Christ.
If someone asks you about your ashes tell them that you wear the ash cross as a symbol of your
mortality, and that you rest in knowing that death is not the final answer. Tell them that you wear
the ash cross as a symbol of hope—that your soul, and the souls of all who believe in Jesus Christ,
will abide eternally with the God of all creation. And, boldly tell them the good news that Christ
has died. Christ has risen and Christ will come again.
May we be so bold.