In the name of the God of all imagining. Amen.
I’ve always valued the weird and the unusual. My favorite books and movies and pieces of theatre are those things that buck the norms and refuse to conform to standards and proven formulas. In any kind of art, I prefer those things that challenge assumptions and explore new ways of creating and new ways of thinking.
So it’s sort of natural that I’ve gravitated to the church. Now, there’s almost nothing new here – this tradition of marking ourselves with ashes on Ash Wednesday dates back to the 6th century. But in our culture, with its heavy focus on acquisition and consumption and self-gratification, the idea of focusing oneself on concerns of the spirit, and one’s inner life – we are decidedly counter-cultural. What we’re doing isn’t new, but it is unusual. And – though it’s not new – it remains foreign to a lot of people. For a lot of people, who’ve never encountered these traditions, it is new, even if it is also very old.
But this Lenten observance that we begin today is about focusing on our inner selves. The lessons we read all point us toward that. The prophet Joel says, “Rend your hearts and not your clothing.” It’s not about what’s happening on the outside, but what we need to have happen on the inside. The Apostle Paul reminds us that though we are treated as imposters, we are true, “as unknown and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive… as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing…” Though the world has expectations and preconceptions of us, we know that in faith, a different truth lives within. And from the wisdom of Jesus, we hear, “whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do… do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret…” And, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray… in secret…” And, “whenever you fast, do not look dismal… 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 [God]…”
Lent is calling us into ourselves. And not in the sense of becoming more self-absorbed, or feeding our lust for self-gratification, but in the sense of doing our interior work. Of readying our minds and our souls for a deeper experience of God, Christ, and Spirit. Of readying ourselves for experiencing Resurrection – of Christ at Easter, but also of the parts of our faith that have died away.
So, if so much of this day and this season are about what’s on the inside, why do we mark it – literally – by marking our bodies – by marking our outsides? And not just marking our bodies in some discrete or quiet way, but marking them right on our faces – on the first place where everyone sees us – friend and stranger alike. There seems to be some incongruence there.
The truth is, that’s something that I’ve struggled with for years. The very first line of the Gospel appointed for today says “beware of practicing your piety before others”. And we respond to this clear direction from Jesus by marking our faces with a symbol of our faith.
The thing is – I think some of the wisdom that the church has found in this tradition is that we can’t just haphazardly dive into our inner selves in the midst of a world that keeps compelling us to focus only on the surface. Every day the world keeps saying, “what you see is what you get.” But, especially during Lent, our faith is proclaiming that there’s something more. It’s proclaiming that God, who is unseen, is more significant than what can be seen. What you see is only the slightest glimmer of what there is.
To call us into our inner selves, the tradition first meets us where we are – stuck on the surface – and it uses the canvas of the surface to speak a deeper truth that lies within. It uses the canvas of truth – our native language – to call us to experience more.
We don’t draw diamonds or dollar signs on our faces – we draw crosses. We draw these ancient symbols of suffering and death that give way to depths of hope and joy that we can’t imagine on our own.
Lent is about that imagining. It’s about exploring the unknown and the unknowable. It’s about delving into what’s unseen to get a glimpse of what is beyond seeing. It’s about getting ready, but for what, we can’t comprehend.