Face Paint

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020 || Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

My kids love to get their faces painted. Whenever we are at a fair or carnival, they will beeline to face painting booth and wait in line as long as they have to. One of the twins will get a Spiderman paint job and the other will look like a unicorn. Then they will spend the rest of the day so happy because of the art adorning their faces. At bedtime, the inevitable strife will ensue. 

“I need to wash the the paint of your faces.”
“No!”
“But it will smear all over your pillow.”
“I don’t care!”
“You’re not the one who does the laundry.”

I’m in charge, so the paint eventually comes off, but I always hate cleaning their faces because it’s like I’m taking their joy away. Those nights, they go to bed very sullen. The unicorn and Spiderman are no more.

Or are they? The paint might be gone, but the imaginations that asked for those particular designs remain. The children can still enter into those identities in their play whether they have their faces painted or not. But for that one shining day, the face paint illuminates on the outside the characters they are playing within.

The same is true today on Ash Wednesday.

Today we have our faces painted – the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads. We receive the adornment of the cross as a reminder to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus Christ wherever he leads. I call the ashy cross an adornment for a specific reason: for the longest time I thought of the forehead cross as a disfigurement. And so I could never square the liturgical action of Ash Wednesday with the words Jesus says in today’s Gospel lesson.

In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes to task those who do things merely for show rather than for dedicated spiritual discipline. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” he says. Don’t sound a trumpet when you give alms. Don’t pray ostentatiously on street corners so others will see you. Don’t disfigure your face when you fast. Give alms, pray, and fast in secret, “and your father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Don’t disfigure your face. Ash Wednesday after Ash Wednesday, these words stuck in my mind while walking to the altar rail, while watching the priest’s trembling thumb touch the powder, while feeling the gritty scrape first vertical then horizontal on my forehead, like sooty sandpaper. Why are we disfiguring our faces when Jesus just told us not to?

But when I think of my children so joyfully wearing their face paint, I realize the ashy cross is not a disfigurement. The ashy cross is a revealing of our true identity, an identity that we celebrate with the sacrament of Baptism. After we baptize with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we take blessed oil and make the sign of the cross on the forehead. And we say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

This is our true identity: God’s beloved children who bear the signature of Christ’s love on our bodies. The mark of the cross is a reminder of the utter lengths to which God goes to bring us back into right relationship with God and one another. The mark of the cross is also our marching orders as we follow the loving, liberating, and life-giving Way of Jesus Christ. The vertical line of the cross links us to the God of love, who strengthens and enlivens us to be part of God’s mission. The horizontal line of the cross is the mission. The arms of love reach out in saving embrace, compelling us to work for justice, reconciliation, and peace. 

Ever since the day of our Baptism, the cross has been on our foreheads – invisible. On Ash Wednesday, we use special dust to make that cross visible again. By making visible the Baptismal cross, we acknowledge our failure to live like the cross is visible all the time. We ask forgiveness for our lethargy in following the Way of Jesus, our apathy when evil abounds but doesn’t seem to touch us directly, and our complicity in the great sins of the world. 

When the cross is visible, we look in the mirror and remember our Baptismal promises: to continue in the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers; to repent and return to the Lord whenever we fall into sin; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ; and to respect the dignity of all people while we work for justice and peace. 

We look in the mirror and see a pair of lines, crude charcoal calligraphy. And we remember what it means to be a follower of Christ, to be sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. We remember that we have only a limited time on this earth to make a difference in the lives of those we meet, to show forth the love and light of God to a world too familiar with darkness.

Before bedtime, we’ll wipe the crosses away, clean them off like I clean my children’s foreheads of face paint. But just as their imaginations remain, just as they can embody their painted characters even when the paint is gone, we too remember the invisible cross is still there, still marking the way we follow, the way of life, the Way of Jesus Christ.

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