“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 …”When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
During our Ash Wednesday service this morning, our community of dusty, stumbling penitents heard these words from Matthew 6. And I thought (and truly thought more than prayed), Lord, let me not be like the hypocrites.
As soon as I thought it, though, my knees wobbled. And I knew, as I know in this moment, as I knew last week, and I will know tomorrow: I’m not just like the hypocrites, I am one.
Here is where the dusty, marked and marred among us get real. I don’t know about you, but I feel a little self-righteous about the cross I wear today, Ash Wednesday. Even when I forget, rub my forehead, lose the feeling of the palms burned and given back to the very ones who claim to praise—even then some small part of me feels self-satisfied.
And, oh, how that humiliates and humbles me.
I am such a child of Earth. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, said the priest, my friend, my bishop. I hear the words, receive them like life. They humble me and give me hope. They are bread for the day’s journey—the rare day that a gathering together doesn’t culminate in bread and wine, but in prayer and fasting. These words are food, but (oh I wish it weren’t true), by the time I’ve returned to my seat, I’m wondering how the cross I’m wearing looks. I’m positioning it not as a symbol of my sin, but as another form of fig leaf. Something to hide my weakness behind so that you won’t know how wounded, how broken, how off the mark I am so. very. often.
And that’s why I’m here. Confessing. Saying to you (yes, you), and my whole community of dusty travelers of the Way that I am a hypocrite humbled. I am wearing my weakness today, and this whole season in which Christ asks me to remember my need.
Today, it’s this ashy cross, this conflicted symbol that I hope in and hide behind. And today it’s also my weakness, my need for help, my need for repentance from all the self-sufficient arranging, impression-managing, impressing I try to do (and will try, I know, to do again).
You see, God’s asked me to give up contact lenses this Lent. I’ve thought about not telling anyone (When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting), just doing it without having to draw attention to what God’s up to in my life. But I’m realizing that the NOT telling is allowing me to stay secretly self-congratulatory. Because I’ve been asked to give up contact lenses for Lent precisely because I am a hypocrite. I despise my glasses, these inconvenient reminders of my weakness, my physical limitations, my broken ways of seeing. I hate the fact that just a glance over their rims brings life less clear, and I’m confronted once more by my lack of vision.
I hate they way they signal to everyone else that I need help.
And that’s what God’s after in me, this Lenten season. Because I’m precisely the one in need of the most help when I’m wearing those lenses day in and day out. You can’t see it then, but I’m hiding my needs, refusing to let others in, putting on a front of holy self-awareness.
Glasses, just like this today’s dark ash, remind me that I am daily hiding, from others and from God. That He’s calling me, not out of punishment or promised pain, to a deeper knowledge of my need. He’s calling me to humility, to an intimate knowledge of who I am—weakness and all—so that I can move beyond the hypocrisy into healing and wholeness. So that He can breathe life into this Earthen frame, if only I will let Him.
And so, here’s me (and the smudge of bread dough that’s calcified onto our kitchen wall because I forgot to clean it off). Me, my hypocritical cross, and my glasses. I’m showing up, taking off the fig leaf by putting on my specs.
And maybe I’ll see a little more clearly His love as a result.
I’ll also be taking up the Daily Office this year for Lent, a practice of intentional prayer. So how can I pray for you? What can I hold tenderly up to Jesus? Leave a comment and I will pray for you these 40 days of weakness and penitence. Will you pray for me? (And thanks, Sarah Bessey, for the inspiration.)