When I was a kid, my friends and I liked to hurl insults at one another. There were some classic lines like, “Is that your head or is your neck blowing bubbles?” Or, “Do that trick again, open your mouth and make your face disappear!”One of my favorites was always, “Halloween’s over; you can take off your mask!” Well, that’s close to the meaning of Ash Wednesday, only it goes like this: Mardi Gras is over, you can take off your mask.
Mardi Gras, which literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French, is one last day of revelry before the solemn season of Lent begins. One of the traditions of Mardi Gras is wearing masks. It’s not just a fun thing to do, but it actually has some significance. For this day, Ash Wednesday, the day when Lent begins, is the day we remove our masks.
Back in ancient Greece, when they had plays, the actors wore very large masks to portray their characters. That way, even in an enormous Greek amphitheater, people could see the facial expressions of the actors. The theatrical mask was called a persona. It’s a word that’s been adopted in modern psychology to refer to the self that we present to the world around us. Our persona is our psychological clothing. Carl Jung said that “the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is.” It’s a mask that we can hide behind.
We all wear these masks. In many ways they’re useful. They can define the role we fill in the world around us and help us feel comfortable with one another. I spend a lot of time wearing the mask of a pastor. That’s the persona I present in order to perform a function. It wouldn’t be helpful for me to wear the mask of a computer geek or a politician or a basketball player when the people in my congregation need me to play the role of the pastor.
Sometimes we also wear masks to protect ourselves from being too vulnerable to others. That’s not such a bad thing either. We all learn what we need to do to protect ourselves in life, and that includes knowing the appropriate masks we need to wear in different settings.
But our masks become a problem for us when we use them to hide who we really are from others so that no one ever really gets to know us. Our masks become an even bigger problem for us when we use them to hide the truth about who we really are from ourselves. And, our masks become the biggest problem of all when we use them in an attempt to hide who we really are before God.
The truth is, despite our best efforts to hide behind the masks we wear, God knows who we really are. Lent is our time to return to the relationship we have with God. The first step on our Lenten journey involves removing our masks so that we can be honest about who we are.
The life of faith is not about the masks we wear that make us look like good, moral people. The life of faith is about the relationship we have with God, and that relationship doesn’t stand a chance unless it’s honest.
So many of us miss this. We tend to focus on Lent as a time to clean up our act and we’ll engage in pious activities like fasting and good old fashioned groveling in confession for our sins. Those aren’t bad things to do, but they don’t necessarily lead us to a more authentic relationship with God. In fact, they can actually become yet another mask that we use to hide behind. For as long as we approach Lent with our agendas, we’re presenting a false self to God. We’re filling a role that we’ve created to God and we’re not authentically the people God created us to be. We’ve become the religious person praying on the street corner when God longs to meet the person we are in the privacy of our room with the door shut, in secret.
So, how do we do that? How do we remove the masks we hide behind so we can have an authentic relationship with God? We won’t get there by controlling and directing how our relationship with God will go. We can only meet God by getting our persona out of the way. It happens in moments when we’re open, undefended and immediately present.
It can be scary to stand before God, stripped of all pretenses. But that’s the only way to a genuine relationship with him. God doesn’t want our religiosity, God wants our authenticity. As Psalm 51 reminds us, “God takes no delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart God will not despise.”
At the end of this day, along with Christians all over the world, I will go home and look in the mirror to see a reminder that I am mortal, that my time on this earth is limited and that my life belongs to God. My mask will be gone, and on my forehead I will see an ashen cross. That’s the way my Lenten journey begins.