There has always been a tension on Ash Wednesday between the chosen biblical readings and the liturgical action of receiving ashes. In the reading from the prophet Isaiah, which Ann shared earlier, we read that God isn’t all that impressed with fasts that include lying in sackcloth and ashes but do not include working to dismantle injustice. In the Gospel lesson I just read, Jesus lambasts the “hypocrites” who disfigure their faces while they are fasting in order that others might see and applaud them. The incongruity between these two lessons and the action we normally take next has always seemed strange to me – and I know I’m not alone in this because I’ve often fielded questions about it from parishioners.
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.
(Sermon for Sunday, February 27, 2011 || Epiphany 8, Year A || Matthew 6:24-34)
A few weeks before he ordained me to the priesthood, the Bishop of West Virginia gave me one truly inspired piece of advice. You might imagine that this piece of advice dealt with the delicacy of liturgy or the intricacy of theology or the intimacy of pastoral care. No. Rather, his advice was quite a bit more practical and worldly. He said to me: “Adam. Never ever ever – no matter what you do – never wear your collar on an airplane.”
In the three years that I have been snapping the collar on, I have discovered the unerring truth behind this advice. There are two reasons why a priest like me should not wear his collar and black clerical shirt on an airplane. First, I will undoubtedly attract the attention of the one person on board who will feel compelled to sit next to me and tell me his or her entire life story. While this isn’t necessarily awful, I’d much rather read Ken Follett’s new book while in the air. I admit that this reason is a bit self-serving, but the second reason is more convincing: I’m not really all that great a flyer.
There’s something about traveling at six hundred miles per hour, thirty thousand feet in the air in a glorified hollow, metal cylinder that tends to rattle me. And there are not many things worse for passengers’ morale than a priest in his clerical collar who is having a mild panic attack during takeoff.
Better to travel incognito: a guy in a t-shirt and jeans having a mild panic attack during takeoff is much easier to ignore. Now, I’ve heard all the statistics. You’re more likely to have a vending machine fall on you, more likely to be struck by lightning, more likely to die in a motor vehicle collision than you are to be involved in a plane crash. But the statistics have nothing to do with my dislike for flying. I don’t have anxiety over that fact that the plane might do something as unlikely as crash. I’m not anxious that a bird might get sucked into a turbine or that the landing gear won’t deploy.
My anxiety comes from the simple truth that there’s nothing I can do if one of these things happens. I’m anxious because I have no control. I’m anxious because, once the cabin doors are sealed and the tray tables and seats are in the upright and locked position, I have absolutely no ability to determine the direction of my fate.
And this is most unnerving. When I connect the two metal parts of the belt buckle and the plane starts taxiing to the runway, my anxiety takes over. I bow to the anxiety and all I have left to me is an expected bout of intestinal distress. But you know what? Anxiety, as a state of being, is (when you get right down to it) a sin, a distortion in our relationships with God.
Anxiety happens when we give in to the temptation not to trust. Trust is a fundamental building block of any good relationship. When (for any number of reasons) our trust for one another evaporates, we lose the foundation of the relationship. The same is true in our relationships with God. When we give into the temptation not to trust that God fulfills God’s promises, our relationship with God becomes distorted. And anxiety is one of the unpleasant byproducts.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount by looking up into the air and speaking about the birds and looking down the hill and seeing the wildflowers poking up through the grass. God, he says, gives to these birds and flowers what they need to flourish. The birds have enough food, even though they do not plant, grow, or store their sustenance. The flowers display great beauty, even though they are here today and gone tomorrow. If God sustains these small, passing things that have no worries at all, then why are you worrying, why are you anxious, Jesus wonders.
On our honeymoon last week, Leah and I saw dozens of examples of Jesus’ illustration. Bumping along in the open air Land Cruiser on our safari in South Africa, we took in the grandeur of God’s creation and witnessed hundreds upon hundreds of animals eating and sleeping and wallowing in the mud. The trip was truly spectacular. I found myself agreeing with Jesus all the more. Of course, God’s relationship with me allows me to flourish as the elephants and buffalo and giraffe and zebra do.
Then we got into the propeller driven plane back to Johannesburg, which kept threatening simply to fall out of the sky, and my trust abdicated once again, only to be replaced by anxiety. Notice the odd reality at work in this example: I am less anxious on the ground because I have some semblance of control over myself. In the air, anxiety reigns because that control is gone. Now, if anxiety is the temptation not to trust in God, why would flying trigger my anxiety while being on the ground does not? In neither situation am I relying particularly on God. On the ground, I rely on myself. In the air, I don’t have that option, so I quickly notice the absence of my self-reliance. Cue the mild panic attack.
The loss of control confronts us with the stark truth that our tendency to rely on ourselves overwhelmingly trumps our tendency to rely on God. When we are in control, we can ignore the fact that we aren’t carrying our weight in our relationships with God. We aren’t opening ourselves up to God’s movement. We aren’t filling the role of trusting children. But when we go up in the air, our self-reliance vanishes and we cannot ignore our failure to join God in right relationship. We cannot ignore the fact that anxiety, rather than trust, fills the hole, which is left when self-reliance is not an option.
So, how do we fill the hole with trust instead of anxiety? Well, the short answer is that we can’t. Whenever our self-control or self-reliance or self-determination is threatened, anxiety will be the byproduct. Therefore, removing things such as self-reliance from the equation is the only way to move toward trust and away from anxiety. After Jesus talks about God’s care for the birds and flowers, he tells his disciples not to be anxious. And then he gets to the punch line: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Striving for God’s righteousness means devoting ourselves to living in right relationship with God. This relationship acknowledges that we are never really in control, whether we are on the ground or in the air. A right relationship with God is predicated on relying on God first, so that we can be open to God working through us. Holding up our part in this relationship means making an effort to take stock how much we rely on ourselves, how often we maintain lone wolf attitudes, how quickly we fail to trust when things get bumpy. Flourishing in this relationship with God happens when we notice ourselves falling into old patterns of anxiety, and, instead of giving in, we pray, we surrender our self-determination, and we trust God.
This is not easy. God knows my success rate is quite low. But over a lifetime of spiritual practice, of walking with God, of following Jesus’ path rather than our own, I believe that we can, with God’s help, overcome the temptation not to trust, the temptation that leads to anxiety. In today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah, an anxiety-ridden Zion cries out: “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”
But the Lord responds: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”
God has each of us written on the palm of God’s hands. God will not forget us. God is here and always will be. When we begin to trust this fundamental, immutable basis of our existence, we will find our right relationship with God. We will move from the floundering of anxiety to the flourishing of trust. Who knows: when I find this trust, perhaps I’ll be able to wear my collar on an airplane.
For many years, I became queasy at the thought of having ashes scraped across my forehead — not because they are a reminder of my own mortality, not because I dislike being called to repent, but because I couldn’t square the action with Jesus’ command in the Gospel for the day. 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. 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?!
I was preparing a children’s sermon when I realized I had it all wrong. As far back as I can remember, I had not seen the ashes as anything other than a disfigurement, a liturgically pretentious sign that I was a pious person. Everything changed when I tried to explain Lent to a group of five-year-olds.
“Did you know that you have a cross on your forehead,” I asked, arching my eyebrows as high as they could go. They all looked back at me with those funny, squinched up faces that kids make when they are quizzical. Several shook their heads emphatically. “It’s true,” I said, “but the cross on your forehead is invisible.”
That got their attention. They began looking at each other’s foreheads. I continued, “When you were baptized, a priest took some oil and made a cross right here” — I demonstrated on myself — “and said, ‘You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.’
“That cross is still there, but you can’t really see it. It’s a reminder that you belong to God and that God loves you very much.” They nodded, open-mouthed. “Today is a special day because today we are going to use some special dust to make that cross appear on your foreheads again.”
On Ash Wednesday, we don’t disfigure our faces so others can see how pious we are. In fact, it’s just the opposite. By making visible again the cross that we received at Baptism, we acknowledge our impiety, our lack of repentance, our apathy to the suffering in the world. The renewed visiblity of our baptismal crosses indicts us for our indifference to our baptismal promises.
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. Disfigurementhappens when we rub the ashes away and forget that there is still a cross written on our foreheads.
On Ash Wednesday we make that cross visible, if but for a brief time. This small, crudely drawn cross reminds us of another cross, the one that Jesus calls his followers to pick up when they decide to follow him. All too often, this cross also fades into invisibility, a wooden victim of our lethargy and misplaced priorities. During the season of Lent, we are given the opportunity to discern how to make that cross visible again.