Like so many others, I watched last night as the stars of Hollywood paraded down a red carpet to be honored at the Academy Awards. Great praise–and critique–was given to every garment and piece of jewelry chosen for the special occasion. Men and women preened and pranced like peacocks, displaying their beautiful feathers for the world to see. I, of course, offered my own expert opinions on their appearance and demeanor from the safety of my couch.
Once inside, the show spent over three hours celebrating the work of these outstanding individuals, golden statues serving as the mark of excellence. My interest peaked as I listened to acceptance speeches that honored mothers and thanked spouses, listing coworkers and mentors in an attempt to sum up a lifetime of gratitude.
In the midst of all this glitz and glamour I periodically checked in on the Facebook buzz. Among the fashion critique and polls on who would win which award, something caught my eye. It was a picture put out by a popular Christian publishing house calling for the return of God to the Oscars. It claimed that God had only been publicly thanked in acceptance speeches a handful of times over the last ten years, which in the opinion of this group, needed to be rectified. It then prophesied an increase in “faith-based films” as a solution which they would be pursuing.
After seeing this post I began to pay more attention to the acceptance speeches that followed and noted that three of the actors in the last few hours of the show did, indeed, thank God. They publicly called on the name of the Almighty in gratitude for their talent and the opportunities they had been given. I assume this pleased the individuals who published the well-circulated meme, but who knows. Either way, their faith was made public.
As we approach Ash Wednesday we read the words of Matthew 6, “Beware practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Hmmm…
It seems that making your faith public is risky business. Jesus warns against loudly and proudly giving alms and praying so that everyone will sit up and take notice. Rather than flaunting your rumbling stomach as a righteous sacrifice, slap your cheeks and perk up when you fast. Why? Because it doesn’t matter what everyone else sees, hears or thinks. There should be no YouTube replays of your prayers or Joan Rivers there to give her “Fasting Police” report. All the Facebook shares and reTweets may leave you feeling like that treasure chest is overflowing, but is that where your heart belongs?
As I sorted through the day-after social media ranting of last night’s broadcast, I came across another interesting Facebook proclamation. “I relish the chance to publicly wear my faith.” (Referencing the imposition of ashes) The writer went on to say that she planned to receive her ashes early in the morning so that she might wear them throughout her day to work, restaurants, the gym etc. I gathered, based on the lengthy comment section, that she believed that by publicly wearing a sign of her faith she would cause others to be reminded of their own faith, to draw nonbelievers to the faith, or at least bring discomfort to those who opposed her faith. It was her marketing strategy, in a sense, and she looked forward to seeing its fruits.
In my experience, there are always a good number of parishioners who would rather die than go out in public with a black cross smudged on their forehead. Baby wipes are freely passed around post-service and that mark of faith is gone before they hit the parking lot. Others may choose to let the ashes remain, but become uncomfortable when they enter the drug store and cashier offers a curious glance, or even God forbid, a question about their “new look”. All that to say, her anxious excitement over the upcoming opportunity to wear these ashes as a badge of honor and piety got me thinking.
We may not have our Ash Wednesday planned out in terms of how many hot spots we can hit with our newly branded selves, but are we innocent of viewing this yearly ritual as just another step in the dance of piety? If having ashes placed on our foreheads is about “wearing our faith,” about “making God public,” then the question remains, who are we wearing them for?
If you are like me, then you have moments in your day when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and are genuinely surprised, even jolted, by what you see. You didn’t realize your hair looked like Alfalfa or that you had been walking around all day with leftovers from lunch on your shirt. Unless you live in front of the mirror, you can forget from time to time the sight of your own self.
When I catch that glimpse of myself after Wednesday’s service and I see the smudge of black and perhaps even the drip of oil down my nose I see something more than faith or piety or ritual: I see me. I see the mark of my humanity, of a fragile and fleeting life haunted by hurt, prejudice, hatred and sin. I see death, my death. I see the end of everything that I thought mattered most and the desperate longing for something more. It is not pride that wells up in me, but humility. From dust I was born and to dust I shall return. God, help me.
So, who are we wearing these ashes for?
If that cashier at the drugstore asked about our marked up foreheads, I doubt many of us would have the courage to speak to the fragility of our own lives–to admit that what we are wearing is not our faith, but our humanity. In a world that often demands perfection, and promotes a version of Christianity that demands the same, Ash Wednesday gives us the opportunity to wear our imperfections and root around in the soot of our sin.
The gift of Ash Wednesday is the glimpse we catch of ourselves in the mirror of honesty and it calls us to change what we see. Not what the world sees, but what we see. For what we see is exactly what God sees, the nakedness of someone in need of redemption.
Rev. Bailey Edwards Nelson has served on the pastoral staff of congregations throughout the southeast, most recently as Senior Pastor of a congregation in North Carolina. She is a graduate of McAfee School of Theology and Furman University. Bailey holds a deep love for preaching and the creative arts.