Before you read this post, you might want to check out the following biblical passages:
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Disclaimer: The following post is not intended to condemn the practice of Ash Wednesday observance, it is simply a reflection of something that popped into my head while at church this morning!
If you are wondering what these passages have in common, they are the lectionary texts that we read every year on Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent). The thing that I find somewhat ironic is that both the Isaiah reading and the one from Matthew seem to contradict the main practice of this holy day, the imposition of ashes. The reading from Isaiah talks about how God doesn't desire for people to fast by dressing in sackcloth and ashes, rather it suggests that God would prefer a fast that involves sharing bread with the hungary and clothing those who are naked.
Similarly, the passage from Matthew warns us to, "beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your father who is in heaven." It then continues to say that when you fast you should not look like you are fasting, and when you pray you should do so behind closed doors. The Ash Wednesday practice, however, is to wear ashes on your forehead all day.
Again, I am not saying that we should abandon the practice of the imposition of Ashes, in fact, I think it is one of the better things that we observe each year. I am saying, however, that we need to think critically about what it is that we are doing. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of 40 days of introspection and reflection. The idea is that we need to look at those places in our spiritual life that are the most dirty and to ask for forgiveness. I would argue that the imposistion of ashes could be a valuable tool in that process. However, I think it would be wise to pay attention to the words of Isaiah. Maybe we should end our Ash Wednesday service by going out into the world and doing something for the cause of social justice!
I pray that you would have a holy Ash Wednesday wherever you are!