If you came by the church yesterday you probably saw all of our excitement. A television show spent the day filming a few scenes here and from very early there were Catholic schoolgirls milling around, detectives dramatically walking through the garden (again, and again, and again), and a few nuns. When I walked by, going to Morning Prayer, the nun and I exchanged smiles, and I asked her, “Real nun or a fake nun?” She laughed, and said, “Fake.” Without missing a beat, she asked me, “Real priest or fake priest?” And I said, “Real—most of the time.”
When I responded to the actress, I was simply trying to be funny. But as I thought about my comment, I realized how true it was, and how fitting the idea of “real versus imitation” is so much a part of the Season of Lent.
Lent calls me certainly to be a “real priest,” but even more it calls me to be a “real John.” Lent calls each of us to be our true selves, our best selves, our most honest selves, our most grounded selves. The ashes we receive remind us of the ground, the hummus, the humility of dust that God breathed life in and the dust we will each of us one day become.
Real or fake? That’s the question Ash Wednesday asks of us, but the liturgy itself reminds us of how the whole season of Lent helps us become more real, more ourselves as God has created us to be. In just a moment, we will hear the traditional Prayer Book words inviting us to a Holy Lent, and we will be reminded of some of the disciplines the season underscores. Each, in its own way, helps us to be real.
“Self-examination and repentance” help us come clean with God, and sometimes with another person or a priest. Just like we will eventually wipe ashes from our foreheads, in confession and absolution, God wipes our souls clean. We turn again to God, turning from whatever it is that has distracted us. Self-examination and repentance are not meant to be overly introspective, counting up every past sin or error, and getting completely bogged down by it all. Rather, confession and the forgiveness of sins should be as exhilarating as a good, hot, perfect bath after a long, dirty day. By getting clean, we become more real.
Prayer puts us in touch with the source of reality and helps us be right-sized.
Fasting shows us our addictions and helps us perceive real hunger, real thirst, real longing.
Self-denial allows room and resources for others. Lent invites us to deny ourselves in ways that avoid inflating ourselves or becoming proud about how we might be giving up this or that. Instead, a truly Lenten self-denial creates more for someone else—whether that’s money we set aside to donate, or food we don’t eat so that we can give to others, or busyness we abstain from so that we can be more present for other people.
And finally, the Invitation to Lent suggests that we might be “more real,” we might discover our truest selves by “reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” Just imagine the reality we might find if we really listened and meditated on scripture rather than on the images of “should” we pick up from advertising, from media, from our own unreasonable expectations, from trying to please others, or from any source that is other than the revealed Word of God. Living in conversation and relationship with Holy Scripture not only “gets it real,” but also “keeps it real.”
In today’s Gospel Jesus mentions the Pharisees who do all kinds of religious-looking things in order to be seen. I’ve always wrestled with this Gospel on Ash Wednesday—does it mean I should wipe the ashes off my forehead immediately, or should I continue to wear them to create a conversation? What’s the line between living as a joyful witness to the Christian life and become an appearance-driven hypocrite? I’ve spent part of the day looking a lot like the people Jesus mentions in the Gospel—I’ve been on the streets, wearing and offering ashes, and having pictures put on Facebook. But, for me, anyway, it is careful and prayerfully considered. In our day, it seems good that people see we have fun while striving for holiness; that we open the door and in so doing, invite others to open their hearts. But the question remains for each of us, “What is the line between the fake and the real?”
Well, only you will know. Only the REAL you, that is—and the real you will come out in prayer, through the strength of the sacraments, through the power of the Spirit, through the nurture and help of Christian community.
Let us pray that God would continue to wash us and clean us so that we might look in the mirror and into the face of God with the reality of a confident and penitent faith.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.