Ashes for Un-masking

A homily for Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Joel 2:1-2,12-17, Psalm 103, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, and Matthew 6:1-6,16-21.

Yesterday we put on masks.  Today, we take them off.

Yesterday we mixed the Anglican tradition of Shrove Tuesday with the French Catholic tradition of Mardi gras.  We had our fill of pancakes and king cakes and we put on masks last night.  

We put on masks to play, to be silly, and to temporarily disguise ourselves.  Often, I find that there’s a comfort in putting on a mask.  No one can see my face.  No one can see the real me.  A mask can make honest what is already the case internally—that I sometimes wear a façade between the real me and you.  Much of the time, we wear masks. 

I wear a mask when I smile but don’t feel like smiling.  I wear one when I appear strong but am actually terrified.  I wear a mask when I pretend to care, but underneath, I’m really consumed with self-interest. 

Wearing a mask can be a matter of dishonesty, but not always.  Sometimes we wear masks because it’s all we’ve been taught or conditioned to do.  Sometimes we wear them for protection.  At times, a mask may save a life. 

But the mask can become too comfortable.  A few years ago when Tammy Faye Bakker was being styled for something, a makeup artist asked her to take off her false eyelashes.  She wouldn’t do it.  “Without my eyelashes,” she said, “I wouldn’t be Tammy Faye.”  It seemed that she had grown into her mask. 

Yesterday we put on masks, but today we take them off.  Or we begin to take them off.  Or at least we are invited to think about taking them off. 

The liturgy and prayers of Ash Wednesday are filled with contradictions:  We observe silence by using words. We kneel for prayer, yet God would have us jump for joy at the forgiveness he has already shown.  We talk about removing our mask and “coming clean” by putting ashes on our forehead.  But rather than the ashes becoming as new kind of mask, the kind of false piety mentioned in today’s Gospel, the ashes in the sign of the cross are meant to remind us that we are putting on Christ.  We put on Christ to allow our true self to be clearly seen, to be magnified, and to shine.

The scriptures today are filled with sounds and images meant to startle, to wake up, and to act like a splash of cold water to wash our faces clean. Through prayer and penitence, silence and service, may we begin to take off our masks, until that day when we see God face to face.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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