Bared Face Beautiful and Beloved
Homily for Ash Wednesday
Preached on February 17, 2010 at Holy Spirit Parish/The Newman Center at the University of Kentucky, Lexington KY
Readings: Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14, 17; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Life often ends up being this big masquerade. We look around and we see everyone’s face but everyone also has a mask on. Most people put on a poker face to hide how they feel. Others put on a game face to let everybody know that they mean business. We all wear different masks. Some we wear to preserve our reputation, to remind people how cool or respectable we want to be seen. Others we don to identify ourselves with this or that group. Most of the time we just put on a mask to make ourselves look good. Masks are what we wear to cope and survive in a world that expects so much from us. They help us to hide behind a made-up face so that our true selves are not found, revealed, exposed. The truth is we are afraid that if we bare our true face, people will turn away, that we’ll be rejected. And no one wants to be rejected.
Masks have been around for centuries. The ancient Greeks used them when they performed the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. In those plays, the masks were worn by the hypocrites. You see, υποκριτής is the Greek word for a stage actor, a pretender, a performer, a player. It is this same Greek word for a player that Jesus uses in the Gospel when He reproaches those who blow their own trumpet, who give alms for show, who only fast and pray to be noticed (cf. Mt. 6:2-6, 16-18). This sort of role-play does not work with the God who sees in secret and sees what is hidden (cf. Mt. 6:4, 6, 18). Moreover, this display does not pay. There is no recompense, no reward in store from the Father. And so, Jesus tells those who wear masks: Stop pretending. “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them” (Mt. 6:1). The show has to stop and new life has to start. Take off the mask.
There are three masks that Jesus calls us to peel off in the Gospel. First, He invites us to take off the mask that blocks out God. Jesus asks us not just to go through the motions but to work sincerely on our prayer life. He directs us to go to our inner room (Mt. 6:6), to leave the distractions of what people are going to think or what they are going to say, and to come face to face with God. Second, Jesus asks us to remove the mask that screens off our neighbor. He instructs us to give alms in secret (cf. Mt. 6:3-4), to care and serve those in need not because of what we can get out of it but because we have opened our hearts and our lives to the cries of the poor. Finally, Jesus calls us to strip off the mask that hides us from ourselves. He tells us to fast in secret (cf. Mt. 6:17-18), to recognize what are the things in our lives that are out of control and get a handle on them, to stop being just good enough and start becoming better.
Jesus tells all of us who wear masks: Take them off. Take off the mask and turn your face to God in prayer. Take off the mask and open your hearts to your neighbor in need. Take off the mask and see yourself in the mirror and change what needs to be changed. The show is over. The midnight of Mardi Gras marks the end of this big masquerade. Behold, now is a very acceptable time to peel off our masks; now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2). Today, on this Ash Wednesday, we take off our masks to reveal our true face before God, our neighbor, and ourselves: we acknowledge that we are mortal, that we are not invincible; we remind ourselves of our finitude, that we have limits; we remember that we are dust and unto dust we shall return (cf. Gen. 3:19). This is the face of an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), the face of one who turns away from sin to be faithful to the Gospel (cf. Mk. 1:15), of one unafraid to take off the mask so that all can see the bare face stained with ashes that to God is still beautiful and beloved.