Our practice of walking around with ashy smudges on our forehead seems a little odd, given that the Gospel we read each Ash Wednesday urges against public displays of piety. Do not sound trumpets when you give alms. Do not pray on the street corners to make people see you. Do not make a melodramatic display of your fasting. Do not store up treasure for yourself. These are the commandments of today’s Gospel passage.
There is something deeply moving about the imposition of the ashes. There is a tenderness to the touch of another’s hand on your forehead, and a contrast between that tenderness and the frankly bleak words they say. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” More than any other ritual in the course of the church year, the ashes root us in our fragile humanity. The simplicity and starkness of the moment ground us in something we so elaborately try not to see, and to me, there’s always a palpable relief in just accepting my mortality in a moment of honesty and grace.
So then, the question I want to ask about today’s Gospel is this: why are these public displays of piety bad? Is it because they are annoying, a little bit gauche? Perhaps. I would co-sign that sentiment. But that’s pretty superficial. We can generally count on the wisdom of the Gospel to run a little deeper than “don’t be annoying.”
It is, I believe, not about whether or not we annoy other people. If our displays of piety lay stumbling blocks in front of others, that’s to be avoided, but I think the more compelling lesson from today’s Gospel has to do with how our practices shape our own relationship with God.
Every action has an outward motion, into the world, and an inner motion, within our being. I submit that part of the work of Lent is to help our outward actions correspond to an inner motion toward God. To give alms has a clear outward value, as it gives money to those who need it, but the inner motion that accompanies it is not determined by the outward motion. I could, as the hypocrites in the Gospel, give money to the man panhandling on the corner and make sure people see me do it, and tell everyone that I did it, but that will not help me see God. In fact, it does the opposite.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. We come before God always as mortals. As fragile bodies with expiration dates, and our mortality unites us, no matter what differences and separations we might construct. If I give alms and need to be seen doing it, I am trying to add a narrative difference between myself and others. I am trying to make others view me as qualitatively different than themselves, for I am the one who gives to others, the one whose defenses against death are such that I can afford to be generous to those who are not so well defended.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Give to your fellow children of God because our shared mortality binds us together. Give because you want your life intertwined with those of your neighbors.
Likewise, when you pray, who cares who sees you? Of what value is someone else’s witnessing of our piety? If that is our focus, are we actually seeking communion with God? Of course not. We are seeking to be thought of as pious. As deep. There’s nothing shallower than that.
Prayer is a key instrument of our relationship with God. It is meant to deepen our experience of the divine and to strengthen us to serve the world better. When we use it to distance ourselves from others, we are trying to make ourselves appear less mortal than them. Prayer draws us together.
Fasting, as well. No points are awarded for your outward display of deprivation. The value of your fast is its inward effect of drawing you closer to God, of making you more aware of our need for God and our interdependence as humans.
So then, Lent. We choose our fast, our practice, to guide our observance of this season. We do so in parallel with Jesus’ forty days in the desert, a time of fasting and contemplation, and the facing of temptation.
As you pick your practices, notice how this Gospel isn’t about seeing the world as a barrier to the experience of God. It’s actually about the barriers we ourselves erect, even the ones we erect through good and pious behaviors, which then keep us further from God.
A Buddhist koan that I’ve come to love illustrates this principle. A koan is a brief saying that illustrates something we can’t arrive at by intellect alone, much like a parable. This koan is about an enlightened being, or a bodhisattva, named Manjushri.One day as Manjushri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, “Manjushri, Manjushri, why do you not enter?” Manjushri relied, “I do not see myself outside. Why enter?”
Manjushri’s wisdom is that gates are of our own construction. A core teaching of Zen Buddhism is that the path to enlightenment is gateless. Any time we perceive a gate across our path, we have created it with our own thinking.
This is a time to examine your own thinking, and to ask yourself what gates you put in your path. We start Lent with this reminder of our eventual death because the path to accepting God’s love—to really accepting any love—starts with being honest about who we are. Our prayers, our studying, our intellectual prowess, all of these often function as defenses against looking clearly at ourselves. They become gates, and give us the illusion that we are outside and that we will, through cleverness or manipulation or sheer force, somehow earn the love we yearn for.
“Manjushri, Manjushri, why do you not enter?”
“I do not see myself outside. Why enter?”
The saying, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” can function like a koan. These are words that remind us that there is no “outside.” Our creaturely existence, in our bodies, in this life, is all already inside. Our attachments to prestige, or to power, or to money, are all attempts to dodge the fact that we are dust, returning to dust. But we don’t need to dodge it, for it is in this life that we encounter God. Denying our susceptibility to death only puts up gates between ourselves and the source of life.
So as you choose your discipline for Lent, I urge you to choose something that helps you become aware of gates you put in your own path. Perhaps you might even take them down. And, like Jesus in the desert, you can consolidate and direct your calling, by knowing who you are in relationship with God. We resist the temptations not so we can impress people, but because we know they direct us away from God. We give alms, and pray, and fast because we desire closer relationship with God and with one another.
So what actions of yours are driven by a desire to distance yourself from the rest of humanity? What do you do to try to convince yourself that death is optional? Those are your gates. Those are the ways you convince yourself that you are outside. But the truth is that you, in your frail, imperfect, beautiful human form, are enough, and you are already inside. You are loved more deeply than you can know. There are no gates. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Start from there.