On Ash Wednesday eleven years ago, I was in East Timor (Timor-Leste) during the Indonesian occupation of that island. Early that morning, I walked the short distance from the Hotel Tourismo to the garden of Bishop Belo’s home for the Ash Wednesday service. The next year, 1999, the bishop’s house and garden were destroyed after Timor-Leste voted for independence. But that day, several hundred people were peacefully gathered.
I stuck out like a sore thumb. For a start, I only saw one other westerner there. But at around 1.91 m (over 6’3″), I also stood head and shoulders above just about everyone else there. I was obvious, and I don’t like being obvious.
When it came time to be marked with the Ashes, I stood in a line to to receive the Ashes from The Shortest Nun in the World. I had to bend very low before she could reach my forehead.
I was grateful that that was how it was. Because for me it was a sign of the one thing that is really needed as we receive the sign of Ashes: that one thing is humility, particularly among such a brave, proud-yet-humble people.
Jesus warns us against making a show of our faith. He warns us against the prideful attitude that says, ‘Look at me!’. When we walk away from here with the cross-shaped Ashes on our foreheads, we need to guard ourselves against wanting others to see how holy we are. We need the Spirit to give us humility.
You may not be worried about being proud. You may think you’re going to look faintly ridiculous. Good! Be ridiculous for Christ. Be a fool in his name. Remember the words of Scripture:
…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
We’re not too good at humility in places like Australia. Perhaps the current economic difficulties we face might give us some help. But in Lent we require humility rather than self concern. We lack the humility of Jesus, born in a shed, tempted in the wilderness, doing the Father’s will, dying on Golgotha. We can learn from the humility of the people of Timor-Leste. We need to let go of self-concern—for Christ’s sake.