Ash Wednesday: Masks, Mortality, and Freedom to Live

February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6: 1-6; 16-21

For the past month or so, every time I open Facebook I have been tormented by a relentless stream of advertisements for this new service called Hims. It’s a subscription service marketed to male-identifying folks who are losing their hair, and promises to make hair loss a thing of the past through a magical combination of lotions, prescriptions meds and vitamins. At first I just rolled my eyes at it. But as the ads continued to pop up, they eventually wore me down to the point that one night I couldn’t get to sleep and  so I started googling things like, “How late is too late to start using Rogaine and Propecia?”


But then yesterday, I remembered how I had painfully spent years trying to poorly rearrange what little hair I had left to the point of looking ridiculous. And I remembered how I suffered for years thinking that I could never live without my hair, until on Ash Wednesday in 2009, in what at the time felt like complete defeat, I walked down to Walgreens. Bought a pair of clippers and shaved it all off. And, lo and behold, I discovered that I magically felt so much more free without my hair than I did with it…that is until those Facebook ads started to pop up. Which got me to thinking about how often I am attached to things that I think are essential parts of my identity and that I could never live without, when in reality those things are just masks that obscure the real me, the free and unfettered image of God that is within me. And that part of my experience of aging, so far, is that slowly but surely each of those masks that I think are essential parts of me get peeled away, and as they get peeled away, I get to watch as this greater thing, the image of God gets revealed.


And yet, I am still tempted to turn back the clock. Some days it feels easier to just go buy the Rogaine and put the mask back on. And it’s on those days that I start thinking like the main character in HBO’s new series Mosaic, played by Sharon Stone, who says, “You know there’s a reason we hang mirrors facing out. Who wants to see all the wires and hangers hiding behind?” And of course, she’s right. None of us want to see beyond the mirror, beyond the masks that we wear and into our mortality. None of us want to be right here tonight, where we will kneel and have ashes rubbed onto our heads and be told that we are going to die. But though we may not want it, we desperately need it. I know I do.


I desperately need to know that my life hangs on something other than the masks I wear. That my life hangs on something greater than the way I look or my age or my health or my job or any of the things I mistakenly believe make up my identity, because I will ultimately lose all those things. I need to know that as the hairs continue to fall from my head and my body continues to fall apart, that something else hidden deep within me is emerging that will never fall apart. I need to hear and know that as my mortal self is dying, my immortal self, the image of God within me, is being born. Because when I stand in this essential truth, that “though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God,” then I am freed to truly live.


Which is why we are here tonight. We are here because we need to hear, that while everything else might be falling apart, there is an immortal light emerging in each of us. We need to have God’s promise etched into our foreheads so that when we look in the mirror, we see that God is reducing to dust all the masks that we hide underneath. And that God is pulling back our masks to show us what is truly essential, the light of Christ that never fades away.


In our gospel reading for today, Jesus speaks about hypocrites and the word he uses in Greek literally means actor, a stage actor or one who wears masks. Jesus says when we are living like actors, we do what we do in order to be seen by others, in order to look good to others. But that’s not how God sees us. God sees beyond the act, beyond the mask, because God “sees in secret,” Jesus says. God sees what is hidden inside of us. God sees the immortal light that is glowing inside of us and because God wants that light to shine, God has given our masks an expiration date. God has made it so that our masks do not last forever, whether those masks be our bodies, our self-improvement projects, our political ideologies, our jobs or any other thing that hides the image of God within us. Because God sees what is truly valuable in us and will not stop pulling back our masks until all we see is what God sees.


God pulled back one of my masks on that Ash Wednesday in 2009 when I decided to just go for it and get rid of my hair. When I looked in the mirror and saw myself completely bald for the first time, I wept. And not because I hated what I saw, but because I felt free. Free from one more attachment that had weighed me down for so long. Free from expensive hair products and bad hair days….let’s get honest. But also free to experience life less like one long, drawn out inevitable tragedy, and more as a birthing process, whereby the layers are peeled away and the image of God within me is revealed piece by piece. And that each loss I experience is yet another step in that process, a letting go so that something greater and brighter and eternal can take its place.  


And so, I wish you the same this Ash Wednesday. I wish that tonight for you is a night of freedom. I wish that as you kneel, that God will peel back the masks and enable you to surrender your sins and brokenness and vulnerabilities to God. And that in that moment, you will feel lighter because the image of God will burn brighter. And that in your release, you will travel more gracefully through this world as the agent of freedom and forgiveness that you are. Amen.

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