Repentance is not a private matter

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“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so 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.” (Mt 6:16 ff)

Christians in the more liturgical traditions find themselves in a cognitive dissonance with this scripture passage every Ash Wednesday. The scripture read at worship on Ash Wednesday is the same every year and includes Jesus’ directive not to change the way we look when we are fasting, to not disfigure our faces, but then after reading that, a minister or priest puts a cross of ashes right on our foreheads for all to see.

The ashen crosses are a symbol of repentance, of putting on sackcloth and ashes, and are a practice that many Christians choose to observe nowadays. It’s because we know, as in Romans 3, “all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God,” and the repentance of Ash Wednesday is a segue into the period of Lent, the 40-day season (not including Sundays) prior to Easter, of concentrating on improving our relationship with God.

Of course, we should always be willing to repent of our sins, but it’s a good spiritual practice to concentrate on this – especially before Easter. The joy of the Easter resurrection is wonderful, but it makes my joy all the more special when I’ve focused on why Easter was necessary in the first place.

So, we begin by walking around with these marks on our foreheads. Publicly, they mark us not only as Christians, but the kind of Christian who attends Ash Wednesday service. Publicly, it can make us feel conspicuous. Privately, however, we are marked with the repentance of our sin, and it flies in the face of the rule of ettiquette that tell us never to talk about politics or religion. These ashen crosses make a public statement.

The thing is, sin isn’t private. It’s no shock to anyone that we’ve sinned. We individuals have passed harsh judgment on others. We’ve allowed ourselves to get angry before conversing. We’ve spread gossip. We’ve ignored needy people locally and abroad. We’ve not stood up against injustice. We’ve eaten too much or fallen into patterns of substance abuse. We’ve made illegal U-turns or exceeded the speed limit. We’ve neglected prayer, and private and corporate worship.

As the Christian church, we have failed. I’ve been reading a book that’s a collection of essays about the theology of worship. Do you know that over 90 percent of Christians today have it backwards: they believe it’s to get something from God, rather than to give something to God. The cross on our heads represents that we’ve given God our sins and we praise him for his grace. We’ve given God something.

One of my soap-box issues is how so many individuals and churches today focus so intently and angrily on issues like banning Harry Potter from schools or teaching evolution — to the neglect of lost souls. Studies show that people who’ve left the church or who’ve decided that the church is not for them were not turned away because they were taught evolution or they read Harry Potter; they left because of some of the ways the Christian church has become. Political. Sometimes spiteful. Intolerant. Corrupt. It doesn’t matter that we think it’s “someone else’s” church or denomination — we are all brothers and sisters in it together. We share the victory of Jesus, and we also share the burden of guilt. That cross on our heads testifies to that.

Repentance is not a private matter because our sin is not a private matter. It’s very public. Neighborhoods know which churches reach out to them. It’s public knowledge where the Christian church has become more involved in internal politics than in serving the Lord of Life. It’s a matter of common sense that most Christian churches today have lost their sense of worshiping God and prefer to be given-to than to give. If you’ve been neglecting your own relationship with Christ, believe me; it shows. If you’re a gossip — believe me, people know. If you’re a speed demon on the road — people know (and, in my case, the East Point police force really knows). So, keeping our fasting private and our ashen foreheads under wraps is misplaced.

The ashes are signs of our repentance as individuals. They’re signs of God’s forgiveness. They’re signs that say to God, “I will now live to be right with you,” and a sign to God’s people that says, “I’m sorry I’ve not heard your cry. I promise to do better.”

Brothers and sisters: Repent and believe the Gospel.

Sally Oakes is pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church, 607 Rivers Road, Fayetteville, GA 30214. Phone: 770-964-6999 or 770-964-6992, or e-mail

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