An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Meant To Be Seen

What are the outward and visible signs of our life of faith?  When people look at us, what unmistakable evidence exists that identifies us as members of the body of Christ?  Today, as we begin our Lenten observance, we receive a mark of ash and oil that signifies our commitment to Christ.  This is a mark for all to see, placed on the forehead.  Its very presence is a statement of faith.  For a brief time, we bear an outward and visible sign — but once the ashes and oil are washed away, what will signify to others that we are disciples of Jesus Christ?

chi-rhoSigns and symbols are an important part of our story and history.  The cross, the fish, the dove, the shepherd’s crook, the Chi Rho, and many others span history as testaments to our beliefs.  In our day, these symbols are found on car bumpers, coffee mugs, T-shirts and refrigerator magnets.  They endure because they have meaning.  And yet, alone they often don’t tell much.  We don’t really know anything of substance about the woman who wears the cross necklace or the guy driving the minivan with the Icthus/fish symbol on the back.  Symbols are a bit ‘fuzzy’ sometimes.  I live in Nashville, and I remember the days following the attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11.  Many people put out flags as a sign and symbol of patriotism and solidarity.  What I found confusing was how many people in our area hung out Confederate flags.  What was that all about?  Mixed symbols, mixed messages.

Symbols alone are inadequate, but words often are not much better.  We can say almost anything, but what we say and what we do may have little in common.  We confess with our lips what we most deeply want to believe, but it is our behaviors that reflect what we truly believe.  Actions really do speak louder than words.  Jesus warns in today’s lectionary passage from Matthew’s gospel that we should be clear about our motivations and intentions.  If we pray and fast and give money in order to impress others by our piety, then our actions are corrupt — they reveal our real values.  Our spiritual practices are not about putting on a show, but about honoring God and growing in our faith.  It is the intention of the heart — the inward and spiritual grace of God — that distinguishes honest witness from hypocrisy.

There should be outward and visible signs of our inward and spiritual life, but they should inspire, edify, and encourage, rather than attempt to impress or make us appear superior.  Paul writes eloquently of the kinds of behaviors that signify to all the gift of God’s grace and power in our lives.  In the face of affliction, hardship, calamities, and distress, we respond with patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, trust and other “weapons of righteousness.”  We don’t repay injury with injury, but we model a grace, peace, and gentleness that proclaims more loudly than words that there is something different about us.

Each and every day presents us with demands and pressures, deadlines and disappointments.  How do we respond?  Do we allow our pressures and problems to define us, or do we allow our faith to shape our response?  The power of God can fill us with kindness, patience, and genuine love.  Is that what people experience when they meet us?  Do strangers see in us joy and peace and lovingkindness when they pass us on the street? 

We are the church — the body of Christ in and for the world.  We are the outward and visible sign of life in the Spirit.  How we move through the world speaks volumes about what we believe, what we value, and who God is calling us to be.  Ashes and oil can be washed away, but the light of joy in our eyes, the smile of kindness and welcome on our faces, and the words of encouragement and compassion on our lips are enduring symbols that can never be erased.

Too often, people make a commitment to “give something up” for Lent.  The challenge I offer this year is to make a commitment to “give something” during the period of Lent — to give encouragement, to give kindness, to give hope, to give mercy, to give forgiveness, to give joy, or to give any of a hundred different gifts of grace and love. 

After the ashes and oil are long gone, the grace of God endures.  Let us be the grace of God for everyone we meet.

Categories: Devotional Reflection

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