“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your father in heaven.” (Mt. 6:1-6, 16-21; Ash Wednesday) Don’t sound the trumpet when you give alms. Don’t pray standing on the street corner attracting attention to yourself. Don’t show off by your fasting.
This is about much more than how we give our alms, where we say our prayers, and what we look like while fasting. Those are just examples that point to a deeper issue. Jesus is getting at the ways in which we often take ourselves more seriously than we take God. He is speaking against our exaggerated self-importance, our need to be seen and recognized, the ways we seek approval and validation from others, our desire for admiration, pretending to be someone or something we are not, and continually measuring our lives by comparison and competition with others.
There are all sorts of reasons why we sometimes act like this. Ultimately though, it is about our fear of death. You can be pretty sure that whenever we begin to take ourselves more seriously than we take God, whether in our thoughts, our words, or our actions, we are living in fear of death. I don’t necessarily mean only our physical death or the physical death of loved ones though that certainly may be a part of it. I’m talking about the death or loss of all the ways in which we try to create an identity, meaning, purpose, and security for ourselves. We fear that if we lose those we will lose ourselves and we will no longer exist.
Our fears of death are as unique and varied as are our lives. We fear the death of our power and control, our reputation, our success, and our accomplishments. We fear the death of our dreams and opportunities, and the images and expectations of what our life and relationships should be like. We fear the death of our independence and self-sufficiency, our financial security, and even our youth and looks. We fear the death of the personas we project onto the world and the ways in which we want to be seen and known by others.
What are the deaths and losses you most fear? In what ways do they control your life and hold you captive? Is that really how you want to live?
I am not suggesting the things we fear losing are unimportant or that they don’t matter. They are important and they do matter but to the extent we are afraid of death, in whatever ways it comes, we are also afraid of life. Here’s the tragedy. When we live in fear of death we deny ourselves the fullness and abundance of life God intends and desires for us. We deny ourselves what we most fear losing, an authentic and abundant life and our truest self. How could it be otherwise? We are taking ourselves more seriously than we are taking God.
So what do we do? How do we break this cycle? To put it bluntly, we must die before we die. Death can only take from us that to which we cling and to which we are attached. Let those things go and death has lost its power. There is nothing to fear. Death has nothing to take from us. That is the way of Christ’s cross and it is the way of Lent. Lent is a forty day death march in which we learn to die.
Our truest piety is not in almsgiving, prayer, or fasting but in our willingness to die to this life. It means letting go of the individual programs we have created to give us happiness, security, power, and control. It means giving and entrusting ourselves to God. It means that we no longer store up treasures for ourselves on earth where death’s rust and moths consume and death’s thieves break in and steal. Rather, we store up for ourselves treasures in heaven where neither rust nor moths consume and thieves do not break in and steal. The treasure Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel is our own life.
Storing up life in heaven begins with mindfulness of death. We remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We face that which we most fear and want to avoid, all the many forms of our mortality. That’s what Ash Wednesday is about. That’s why we come here today.
To voluntarily be marked with ashes and reminded of our mortality is the beginning of death’s defeat and our rebirth in God. It is the beginning of our participation in Christ’s death and the sign of God’s promise to give us everlasting life.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” is the Church’s way of saying, “Don’t take yourself more seriously than you take God.” Today is our first step into death. It is a journey that leads, not to the grave, but to the fullness and abundance of life that God intends for us and we most desire for ourselves.