Wednesday, February 18th is Ash Wednesday for many Christians around the world, so you may see people walking around with black crosses drawn on their foreheads. It’s a day when we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
In one of the great ironies of our church year, we always read from Matthew 6 on Ash Wednesday where Jesus admonishes us: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Maybe it seems a bit hypocritical that we piously and somberly wear black crosses on our forehead as a public sign on the same day Jesus tells us not be show offs about our faith.
This kind of thing used to bother me, but now it feels like another one of those holy paradoxes of the Christian life. One of the most common criticisms of Christianity is that we are a bunch of hypocrites, that we may act “holier than thou” but underneath we are just like everyone else. As evidence, people will point to the countless examples of Christians who have sinned publicly or harmed others.
Ash Wednesday is all about confessing our sin, brokenness, and limitations, so it is as good a day as any to tell the truth about ourselves. The truth is all Christians will act like hypocrites from time to time. Any sin you find in the world you will find in the history of the church at some point. This is why we seek forgiveness over and over. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” as Romans 3:23 says. Or as a popular saying describes it, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” Every one of us must rely on God’s grace.
The remarkable thing that Christians confess is not that we live our lives more perfectly than anyone else, but that God’s grace and goodness works in our lives and world despite our sin. The remarkable thing is that God chooses to work through imperfect people like us. If we are living as a holy people, it is not because we have earned it through squeaky-clean behavior and perfect attendance. We are a holy people because the holy God loves us. It’s all grace.
Perhaps this is why we need a day like Ash Wednesday. The invitation for us on this day is not to show off our piety, but to confess our sin and limitations. We remember that our whole life is a gift from God, that God formed us from dust and breathed life into us. We remember that God’s holiness comes to us even through sinful and imperfect people. People may let us down, but God will not abandon us.
Note: This post originally appeared in the Brodhead Free Press and the Independent Register as part of their weekly “Pastor’s Corner” column.