A little late...
“Man decays like a rotten thing,” said the holy prophet Job; “Man decays like a rotten thing, like a garment that is moth-eaten” [Job 13.28]. The things that we trust the most—our bodies and our possessions—are perishing. So the ashes mark our bodies as the sentence handed down to our first parents is repeated to us: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” You are dying; the body that you trusted to give you strength and provide you with pleasure will return to the dust. The ashes demand that you remember that.
Likewise fasting forces us to confront our weakness. The weakness of our body without nourishment, but also the weakness of our wills; for some of us have a tendency to eat more than we should, more than we need.
Jesus assumes that we will fast. “When you fast,” begins the Gospel reading appointed for Ash Wednesday. Likewise Luther in the Small Catechism takes fasting for granted: “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training.”
But “when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” It has become a means to impress others. How much of your life—even religious life—has become wrapped up in pride? Even if you’ve gotten others to be impressed by your show, God is not impressed. Do you want to be seen by others? Noticed? Appreciated? Then you have received your reward; and so expect nothing from God. He is not impressed.
Rather, our Lord says, Do not do your fasting to “be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.” Why would your Father want you to fast at all? Because He wants you not only to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” but also to remember that your life is not simply wrapped up in what you eat, but that you are ultimately—and only—dependant upon God. Because you are baptized, you are God’s child; and because you are God’s child, your life comes not from food and drink that cannot last, but from God who makes corpses rise and dry bones live.
Not eating makes body and mind panic; but we know that we will eat again. We are simply waiting. Waiting is a terribly hard thing to do. When we want something, we want it now.
But God has promised to give us something that we will have to wait for: salvation. The resurrection of our bodies. The end of death; life with God into the ages of ages. When you fast, you are telling your body, telling your self that you are waiting for something more important than your next meal; you are waiting upon God, for His salvation. “Man decays like a rotten thing, like a garment that is moth-eaten,” said Job; but he also said, “After my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God.” For the Father who sees in secret that you are waiting upon Him, waiting for His salvation, will reward you. If you look for the glory of the world, you have your reward; but seek instead the reward that God gives: after the destruction of your skin, seeing God in the flesh, at the resurrection when He remakes your flesh. That is your reward. Not a reward earned by you, but earned by your Lord Jesus and credited to you. Fasting is waiting for the food that God gives—the Sacrament—and learning that that is the food we cannot live without.
So Jesus, when He calls us to fast, calls us to wait, not finding our home or treasure in this world. Using possessions is not wrong, but they must never become our treasure. We imagine that the next possession, the next treasure we seek will make us happy, and meanwhile we hoard and cling to the possessions we have. By our closets and rooms heaped with treasures or trinkets, we are in danger of making those things be the treasure of our heart. But “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” Perhaps Jesus was thinking of that verse from Job: “Man decays like a rotten thing, like a garment that is moth-eaten.” Your stuff is decaying, and so is your body.
So Lent also reminds us of the need to give our treasures away. Give to the church – not simply to pay the bills, but so the church can do works of mercy – or do those works of mercy yourself directly. For the true treasures are not in things, but in people.
The greatest treasure we have from God is forgiveness; giving that treasure away will also mean reconciliation with others.
As we pass through this solemn season, we should fast; not as a law or with rules, but trying to control the desires of the body so that we look to God for our life instead of earthly pleasures. And also, so that we learn to fast from sin. Instead of giving up chocolate or some favorite food for Lent, let’s try to identify what is our greatest, nagging sin, and pray fervently throughout Lent that God would help us to give up that sin.
Finally, let your treasure not be in possessions of the earth, which moths destroy and thieves steal; let your treasure be in the sign now adorning your forehead. The ashes on our heads are made in the sign of the cross so that not only are you reminded that you are dying, but also that you remember the One who has overcome death, defeating it. Death has no power over you. Even though you return to dust, in your Baptism Jesus has marked you as His own. He has stamped His cross on you, and nothing – not even the grave, Satan, or hell itself, has any hold on you. We are journeying through Lent towards Easter; know that God will bring you to His Easter, on the day of resurrection.