With Ash Wednesday this pandemic year, the already dim light of Epiphany gives way to the murkier light of Lent. Epiphany, meaning revelation, marks the bright manifestation of Christ to Gentiles, represented by the Magi. It is a season devoted to shining outward. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his followers they are the light of the world. “Let your light shine before others,” he says, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Even so, Jesus then cautions against being too obvious about it. “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them,” he warns (Matt. 6:1). Do it all in secret, “then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (6:4). While this is a huge relief for those for whom public displays of Christian devotion generate alarming awkwardness, it does seem contradictory. Do we shine our light for others to see or keep it on a dimmer switch?
It may be helpful to view these twin injunctions as counterbalancing rather than contradictory. The concern is over who gets the glory. Jesus encourages us to let our good deeds glow so people may give glory to God from whom all blessings flow. But danger lurks if in doing good you feel entitled to your own glory. Early Christians filed such entitlement under the category of vainglory, the deadly sin of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. With vainglory, you dutifully follow what God demands, yet grow irritated when nobody notices or gives you credit for being so righteous.
The Judaism of Jesus’ day came equipped with disciplines to ward off vainglory. These disciplines—alms-giving, fasting, and prayer—took the focus off yourself. They became disciplines for Christian Lent. However, human nature being what it is, Jesus warns how alms-giving, fasting, and prayer, designed to guard our hearts, can all be corrupted by our hearts. Ergo the Ash Wednesday punchline: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12).
The Greek verb to humble has two distinct meanings depending on voice. In the active voice (where the subject does the action), to humble, as in to humble yourself, means to regard yourself as no better than anybody else. Humility is that quality of character that does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not out of any want for applause or payback or pride. The Greek etymology is uncertain, but the Latin comes from the root word humus, from whence we get the word human, as in God created humans out of the humus, the dirt and the dust of the ground. As liturgically minded believers gather in some churches, via Zoom, or once again by way of drive-thru (a so-called ash and dash experience), ashes will be applied to their foreheads with the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Many Protestants eschew ashes in keeping with Jesus’ warning against practicing your piety in front of others for show. Ashes are an ancient Jewish symbol of humility; but if you’re not careful, ashes can become substitutes for the humility they symbolize. It starts by thinking that wearing ashes in public shows you’re not ashamed of the gospel. But if that makes you proud of your humility, well, you see the irony.
There is a dark side to being humble. In the passive voice, the subject receives the action. Instead of humbling yourself, you get humbled by somebody else. In English, we make the distinction between humility with humiliation. We could interpret Jesus as saying, “All who exalt themselves will be humiliated, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The verbs will be humiliated and will be exalted are also in the passive voice. Theologically rendered, the passive voice is often known as the divine passive voice, meaning God is the one doing the action. Ergo: Humble yourself and God will exalt you. (This is a good thing.) Or: Exalt yourself and God will humiliate you.(This is a bad thing.) And it’s especially bad because the verbs are in the future tense. Jesus uses Judgment Day language.
This is why we humble ourselves, as hard as that can be. The official liturgical term for donning ashes is imposition. Humility is always an imposition. Nobody likes being reminded they are dirt and that their destiny is in the dust.
Having now lived through a year of pandemic, with millions sick and dead, we’ve been forced to face our fragility. But our common suffering has united us too, even amid this past year’s political and racial divisions. We have learned to rely upon one another for our own health and well-being—wearing our masks, keeping our distance, offering up prayers, giving where needed, helping out as we can, hoping as we must.
We know how this will end as vaccines take hold, but we won’t be returning to normal as we knew it. Some will never fully recover from the pandemic’s dire economic effects. Others will mourn their loss of loved ones for a long time. Still others will suffer the lingering residue of the virus itself in their bodies. Indeed we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
Still, the Lenten aim remains resurrection. Ashes serve as fertile soil, providing for roots to take hold and good trees to grow and shine with Christ’s light. As Christians we are “buried with [Christ] through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4). New life is not one solely reserved for eternity. It begins here and now.
Daniel Harrell is editor in chief of Christianity Today.