Ash Wednesday

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Ash Wednesday; Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103:8-14; II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Sunday, Jesus led us to the mountaintop, and it was a glorious sight! And if we had any illusions about what he said on the way back down about the Son of Man having to die, if we had any doubts about this descent journey that Jesus had in mind, we don’t have them now. That mountaintop seems a world away. Our feet are firmly planted squarely back on earth, and all we are left with today is the nakedness of our utter humanity.

This is one of those liturgies that strips us bare. By the end of it, we just have nowhere left to hide. For the vast majority of our life throughout the year, we can hold it together, wear the mask, put forward the face we want the world to see—this is actually what Jesus is getting at when he tells the disciples not to do as the hypocrites do. We all know what a hypocrite is—it’s a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs [Merriam-Webster]. But the original meaning is deeper than that. In the greek, it means “an actor, a stage player, a pretender, a dissembler.” Ooooh—I had to look that last one up. To dissemble is “to put on an appearance of, to simulate, to hide under a false appearance, to hide your true feelings and opinions.” A dissembler is one whose outsides and insides don’t line up. And it can go both directions—it may be that you see lots of great external actions, but the inside motivations are dark, or it could be that one has thoughts, opinions, feelings, dreams, hopes that live deep within but never find their way to the surface—all those possibilities remain hidden. In both cases, we act our way through life, never really inhabiting our own skin.

Jesus is telling the disciples, “This is not the life I have in mind for you. Your inner life is aligned with me, with God, with Spirit, and your outer life is the sacrament of that—your outer life is the outward and visible sign of that grace that lives within you—that’s what it means to live a holy life. Not a perfect life, but a holy life.”

But the problem is we are mortal. We are infinitely human. We bear the divine breath, but it is breathed into dust—we have feet of clay. We get out of vertical alignment with God, and our lives fall out of alignment in that horizontal plane of time and space, and it all starts to go awry. And today, our scriptures and our prayers of confession mark out all the ways it can go astray.

Isaiah calls attention to what this looks like communally—widening gaps between rich and poor, disregard for workers, disregard for those in need, deepening levels of oppression of all sorts—and in the classic sense of “hypocritical”—all these actions are done under the cover of good, pious, religious expression. Hear again Isaiah: “They delight to draw near to God. ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ And God responds, Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day… Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist…”

Paul reminds us that salvation isn’t some future state, but it is a present reality. When we are out of alignment, little fault lines start to develop in our relationships—sometimes, they’re barely noticeable; sometimes, chasms open up. Paul is right, we are in need of reconciliation, and the time is now: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way.” The only obstacle in our way is us. Now is the time to be reconciled, to God, to our neighbor, to ourselves, and in that reconciliation, we will discover our salvation, the wholeness for which we long.

Jesus does a direct assault on the False Self in the section of Matthew we hear today. All the things the “hypocrites,” “the actors,” do is “to be praised by others, to be seen by others, to show others, to store up for themselves treasure.” These go to the heart of at least two of the three power centers of the False Self—our insatiable need for esteem and affection and our need for safety and security. And, in the passage just before this section of Matthew where Jesus lays out his radical teaching on nonviolence, Jesus drains the third power center of the False Self of its juice—our need for power and control.

The False Self is that part of us that emerges when we lose sight of our alignment with God. That alignment is always there, but we forget where True North is, we fail to see our True Self, we fail to live in the fullness of our irrevocable, indissoluble, incomprehensible connectedness to God that is the basis for all reality. The glorious truth is that we are never not connected to God. But we lose touch with this alignment, and when we do, the False Self is ever at the ready to spring to life in its anxious search for God—if only our False Self could see who we really already are! Richard Rohr is right, the False Self isn’t the bad self; it’s just not the True Self.

The ashes we receive today ground us firmly in our earth-based, feed-of-clay humanity. And if we aren’t deeply in touch with our mortal limits as we are marked with these ashes, our prayers of confession will finish us off with exquisite specificity. They leave no rock unturned. Every last way we blow it is laid bare for all our brothers and sisters, and God, to see.

Today, and this season of Lent that stretches in front us, is meant to strip us bare, right down to the core, right down to the heart, so that our heart can be calibrated once again to True North, to that Holy Mystery whom we call God. This season is about searching out and discovering all the ways we have lost our alignment, so that, with God’s help, we can once again live out of that space of holy alignment where our divine bearings find expression in our human living, and our outsides and our insides once again express one another with that integrity, that wholeness that is the very essence of salvation.

This is the hardest journey you will ever make; it will feel like death, but this is always the price of discovering resurrection life. As hard as it is today to begin this journey, do not forget that, at the end, an empty tomb awaits us, our burial chamber will be opened, and we, with Jesus, will leave our graveclothes behind. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 5, 2014