As a newly ordained priest a few years ago, it took me some time to get used to wearing a clerical collar. I'm still a little surprised at the double takes it can cause. For instance, I go into a local pharmacy a couple of times a month. When I walk in as a civilian, none of the people working there seem to pay any attention. But twice I've walked in wearing my collar and both times a cashier hollered a hearty "Good afternoon" to me. Maybe they want a blessing.
Not long ago I needed some plumbing work done at my condo. I stayed home that morning and waited for the plumber and his assistants to come replace my water heater and do some other projects. When the three arrived I was just wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. But I had a church function to go to. So while the plumbers were working I went into my bedroom, closed the door, changed clothes, put on my collar, and then opened the door and came out. You should have seen the double takes those three plumbers made in unison (I'm not sure if that helped or hurt me when they wrote up the bill).
So I'm still getting used to the funny glances, sometimes the smiles and warm greetings, other times a frown or a suspicious look or just an expression of surprise, when I wear my clerical collar.
Well, Ash Wednesday is a day you can experience the same sort of double-take phenomenon. Maybe after the service you attend you'll go out to eat or stop at a supermarket to pick up a few things with the ashen cross still smudged on your forehead. Pay attention to the looks you get. Maybe a conversation will arise with your cashier or server or someone you pass by who asks you about the smudge on your forehead. I've noticed people can be so helpful on Ash Wednesday-"Oh, hey, you've got a little dirt on your face. . ."
Take notice of any reactions you get. And think about why you're doing what you're doing. Who knows, it might open an interesting and life-giving conversation with someone.
But is that why we participate in this strange liturgical rite as we begin the season of Lent-just to get noticed? Why do we walk around with a cross-shaped ashen smudge on our foreheads for the rest of the day?
And what about the gospel text where Jesus seems to be telling us not to show off our piety? (Matt. 6:1-18). For instance, he says if we're fasting we should clean ourselves up and look normal, not draw attention to ourselves and our great devotion by wearing sackcloth and ashes. Jesus says only God should know what we're up to.
Of course, some of us might consider Jesus's words here an easy out-we can clean off the smudge right after the Ash Wednesday service so we don't have to engage in an awkward conversation about what's on our forehead and why.
But this teaching of Jesus is a little confusing because elsewhere in the gospels, in Matthew 5 for instance, he encourages us to let our light shine so others may see our good works and give glory to God. So why is he all about being secret in this chapter-right when we get to carry this mark of ashes on our forehead?
Well, we aren't doing it to impress God, who already knows what's in our hearts, even the secrets. In fact, if we're proud about our smudged forehead then we're doing it wrong. After all, in Isaiah 58:1-12, God says, I don't want you moping around in sackcloth and ashes. No empty rituals, please. Instead I want you to get to work for the kingdom. Help somebody. Serve the needy. Give. That's righteousness in action.
And Jesus echoes this. He wants to see us at work for God's commonwealth as well-practicing our faith, putting our spiritual lives into action, giving our resources to care for other, praying, letting go of our own wants. Putting our spiritual lives into action-positively, helpfully-is a vital, lifegiving way to demonstrate our piety and our faith to the world around us.
So maybe we get the ashes on our foreheads not as a mere ritual, trying to prove something to God, and not to impress others about how good we are in order to get a righteous pat on the back, but we get them for our own selves. We can't see the ashes unless we look in a mirror, and Lent is a good time to look in a spiritual mirror. To look deeply, prayerfully, into our souls and see what's lacking, what we yearn for, what we need to get back on track. The ashes remind us of our need for humility.
But we need to be clear about what humility really is. It's not some perverse opposite of pride, where we whine "I'm nothing, I'm a nobody." No, real humility is understanding and accepting ourselves as human beings in the great scheme of things, yielding our stubborn will and selfish desires to God. Humility is about knowing and accepting, even reveling in, who we are-human beings who need God wholly, and who God loves wholly.
The ashes are for each one of us. To remind us of humility, and also to remind us of mortality. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. We hear those words as we receive the ashes. They remind us that we are mortal human beings-each one of us will die.
A few years ago around this time, theologian Marcus Borg wrote this about Ash Wednesday: "None of us knows when we will die. Could even happen later today. Or tomorrow. Or maybe not for many years. We don't know. Thus it is wise, prudent, and necessary to repent" in order to be in right relationship with God. Marcus died within a year of writing that.
So the ashes of Ash Wednesday are also a reminder of our mortality. Borg noted that a friend of his believes Ash Wednesday is "the most honest service of the church year."
Let the ashes remind you "that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Yes, you can hear echoes of the creation story in Genesis, when God made human beings from the mud, dirt, and dust of the ground. We may be dust, but we are beloved dust. And God can do amazing things with plain dirt once it's filled with the very breath and Spirit of God.
So this Lent, let us look deeply in that spiritual mirror and see the ashes every day, not just on Ash Wednesday.
This Lent, let us continue to learn to trust that God is good and gracious and loving and forgiving, and what other humans think of us isn't anywhere near as important as our relationship with God-and what we do for others out of that relationship.
This Lent, let us take up a discipline of doing something positive solely for the purpose of pleasing God, or perhaps giving something up in order to make room in our lives for God's Spirit to move around more freely in us.
This Lent, let us make God the focus of our attention, our love, our piety.
And if anyone else happens to notice, tell them why.
 My thanks to the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter, "What Audience? Ash Wednesday," Sermons That Work, http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2014/02/18/ash-wednesday-abc-2014/.
 Marcus Borg, "Ash Wednesday: Death and Repentance," Day1.org, March 4, 2014, http://day1.org/5706-marcus_borg_ash_wednesday_death_and_repentance.