Ash Wednesday (A): Letting Go
By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
A confession seems appropriate to begin a reflection for Ash Wednesday. So, here it is: I struggled to write this piece. No, it wasn’t procrastination or ‘writer’s block’ or that I was too busy. I honestly believe that it is about my own wrestling with the texts and the truth of this day in the life of our faith.
After all, Ash Wednesday is a hard day in the life of the Church.
In fact, one of the best sermons I have ever heard proclaimed on this day involved the preacher wondering aloud why we flock to churches to hear the stunningly honest proclamation of this day–you are dust, and to dust shall you return. These are sobering words, for they reveal our deepest truth as human beings. We are impermanent.
As I ponder this the appointed text from Matthew’s Gospel, I am reminded that, over the course of seven years of marriage, my spouse and I have lived in six different homes across three states. To write that is almost painful. However, along the way, through each move, we’ve learned quite a lot. We have strong opinions about moving companies, detailed plans for how best to pack, and a deeper appreciation for the ways that communities enable us to feel at home.
We have also been amazed at how quickly we amass ‘stuff’ in each placed we have dwelt. Even when we haven’t lived in a place very long, belongings seem to multiply quickly, and, before we knew it, every corner of storage space in the house is filled.
In the Gospel lesson appointed for Ash Wednesday, Jesus tells those gathered on a Galilean hillside not store up treasures on earth, where they rot, rust, or are stolen. Instead, Jesus bids them, store up treasures that will last, heavenly treasure. Treasure, he says, will lead the heart.
I’m always amazed that we read these verses, and the ones that precede them, on this day in the Christian tradition. Of all days, this day contains one of the most ‘treasured’ practices–the imposition of ashes upon one’s forehead. With a very public display of piety, so begins a forty-day sojourn in a wilderness of penitence, fasting, and self-denial.
Yet, Jesus’ warnings before his instruction on treasure storage focus on piety and prayer, suggest a much more private posture toward the actions we Christians will take on this holy day.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you…”
“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door…”
“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face…”
Like many who have read Matthew’s Gospel before us, I don’t believe Jesus is arguing that we should never pray in public, that we should never share our fasts with another person, or that we should stop placing our offerings in those shiny brass plates on Sunday morning. However, I do believe Jesus’ words call us to some deep reflection about our lives, our faith, and our treasure.
Maybe this day isn’t about putting on ashes, or anything else for that matter; perhaps this day, and the invitation to enter into the season that follows, is about what we need to take off or with which we need to part ways. After all, everything, including us, is impermanent.
In reading this Gospel passage on this sacred day, at the dawn of this holy season, Jesus’ warnings seem to invite us to travel lightly in the trek that lies before us. As the depths of winter begin to give way to the blooms of spring across much of the country, and the layers of cold weather attire give way to warmer days and lighter jackets, our faith might also do well to shed a few layers and be renewed by this hallowed journey toward resurrection.
What do we, as individuals, need to shed in the days ahead?
Perhaps it is a sense of shame at having not kept up a life of prayer or an addiction to the voices of various media that leave us in a haze of confusion and doubt.
What do we, collectively, as a people of faith, need to part ways with as we travel the familiar road of Lent?
Perhaps it is an attachment to the sacred symbols of tradition or a fear of taking a risk amidst a world that too often bids the Church play it safe.
Together, the soft, flaky ashes upon our foreheads and these ancient, familiar words of Jesus, invite us into this holy season, and call us to take stock of our individual and collective lives. Let us not fear shedding a few layers of whatever weighs heavy upon us in these days, that we might discover what truly matters, what really lasts–the eternal love of God.
The Rev. Andrew J. Hege is the Rector of St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. In his spare time, he is an avid reader, a runner, and a lover of golf. Andrew is married to Amanda and they share their home with their daughter, Eleanor, who was born in 2017.