(Guest post by my friend, the Rev. Louise Samuelson)
I remember listening to Jesus’s words against public displays of prayer and fasting while waiting for the priest to smear a very noticeable swath of black ash onto my forehead. Isn’t this inviting the very hypocrisy Jesus seems to be condemning?
But what if the practice of putting on ashes is not hypocrisy at all but rather irony? The people of Jesus’s day would make a great show of their humility by covering themselves with ashes. We on the other hand are masters of cleaning up. We spend a great deal of time and money to look good. We practice slapping a smile on our faces and letting the world know we are fine. We hide behind façades we create, knowing too well that to often our outsides do not match our insides.
Maybe this practice of smearing our foreheads with ashes gives us an opportunity to reveal our hidden truth. Maybe this liturgy we participate in on Ash Wednesday stage manages us into public exposure: we are not what we seem.
These burned up particles of carbon remind us that we are made of the stuff of the earth. To be human, to be humble, and to be humus or earth, all come from the same root word for “ground.” The ashes we spread on our foreheads “ground” us in the reality of who we are: human beings, created by God, and connected to every other created thing.
These ashes also remind us that we are not what we seem, but sinners living hidden lives. The ashes remind us to be real and vulnerable. To show the world what is true about me. I’m not perfect. I’m a bit of a mess.
We are invited on this day by the prophet Joel to come out of our hiding places and return to the Lord. The great irony is that we are called to return in vulnerability to the God who knows in secret and sees in secret. The God who spoke carbon particles into existence and created us in his image, this is who we return to. This is the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The God who sees our secrets is the God whose property is always to have mercy.
The grace of God is the setting in which we return. God’s natural inclination is mercy. As we come out of hiding and acknowledge that this God of mercy sees us, we are ready to begin a Holy Lent, to practice disciplines that will lead us to integration. We can begin to become people whose insides match our outsides.
How does this transformation to integrity come about? Jesus mentions three practices used for millenniums to become who God intended: Giving to the needy, fasting, and prayer. It is through generosity, dying to ourselves, and meeting intimately with God that we become the people God designed us to be.
I love the definition of intimacy as “in to me see.” As we practice the disciplines of generosity, fasting and prayer in secret, where our loving Father sees us, we allow God to see into us…and intimacy is developed.
Many people like to give up or take on something during Lent. The three disciplines that Jesus mentions could be could be divided into things that we take on that help others, things that we give up that keep us from being who God intends us to be, and things we take on that help us grow in intimacy with God.
I remember a time in my life that I was painfully aware that my insides did not match my outsides. I looked like a good Christian mother, leading bible studies, and homeschooling my children. But I had doubts about God and felt far from him. I also felt if I shared that with anyone in my circle I would be rejected. I also had some unhealthy habits that seemed to have total control over me.
The first step I had to take was to come out of hiding to a couple of trusted friends. I needed to allow them to see into me. Fortunately in the midst of my doubts I had a trust in God’s Grace and mercy.
I’ll never forget that first Lent when I was a part of this particular group of safe friends. I decided that I would fast from all food every Wednesday. I wanted to look at the hold that excess food had over me. I also took on an extra time of prayer Wednesday nights. My sweet husband would take our three children out to dinner. I would light a candle, get out my bible and journal and spend the evening with the God who sees me and loves me in secret.
Giving up food for a day, and taking on a special date with God changed my faith. I became a more integrated person free to be honest about my struggles and free to be available for others. It all started with a loving place where I could be real and a simple trust in God’s never ending love for me.
As you enter this Lenten season, let these ashes be a moment of honesty for you. Allow yourself to be seen as a bit of a mess. Then allow yourself to go inside and meet in secret with the God who loves you. Let him show you what you might take on or what you might give up. Then find a small group of people you can be real with, allow them to be that safe space for you to be seen.
I hope that each of us we will experience a deeper more intimate relationship with God this Lent. God will reward you with more of himself and with a life of integrity, where your insides and outside will reveal the beautiful person you are in Christ.