1Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near –
2a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.
12Yet even now, says the LORD,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
14Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain-offering and a drink-offering
for the LORD, your God?
15Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.
17Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep.
Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O LORD,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
“Where is their God?”’
Jesus said to the disciples, 1‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
16And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’
Ash Wed marks beginning of Lent. It’s observed 46 days before Easter. Gets its name from ancient practice of placing ash on foreheads of the faithful as a sign of repentance. Ashes are gathered after last year’s palm crosses are burned. The ash is mixed with oil of baptism and a little water. We are reminded that the palm, a symbol of triumph when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time was swiftly followed by defeat and death as the palms are reduced to dust.
The mark traditionally made is the sign of the cross. Left visible until sundown when it is washed off. Cross is the symbol of our salvation and a sign of the spirit of penitence with which we hope to keep this season of preparation for Easter.
Ashes are a symbol also of our mortality. All human beings are created by God from the dust of the earth and it is to dust that we will return. As it says in the funeral service, ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’
The imposition of ashes is an act that echoes the near eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one’s head and dressing in sackcloth to signify repentance before God. As we have just read in Joel, a penitent person would also fast, with weeping and mourning for missing the mark.
But today’s gospel reading warns us against excessive displays of piety or charity with the wrong motive in mind. Repentance is a private matter, between ourselves and God. It is not to be done in the hope of gain, for salvation is by the grace of God alone and not a reward for any action on our part.
And yet even though repentance is between ourselves and our maker, we have the promise of treasure in heaven rather than on earth. The sign of our repentance is not seen by others but by God, so our reward comes not from honour or admiration by those we know but from God who is in secret.
On Ash Wednesday we also look forward and resolve how we will spend a fruitful Lent. Hopefully this will not be by giving anything up, unless it is something that is not healthy for our souls. No, we should resolve to live lift to the full – not stopping doing anything but taking up those things that will help us become truly fulfilled as we travel the way of faith. What that might be will vary according to the individual, and will be harder than self denial. So now let us call to mind our sins in the Litany, and prepare ourselves for the imposition of ashes as a visible mark of our repentance and determination to turn to Christ in faith and hope of heaven. Amen