Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-19 / Matthew 6:16-21

... and Thy Father Who seeth in secret, will repay thee.

Seeing and being seen. Concealing and being concealed. Much energy in human life can be understood in this simple dynamic of the visible and the invisible, the seen and the unseen, the manifest and the occult, what is in the open and what is in secret. Normally, we imagine that these two poles represent two worlds discrete from one another, that to occupy the first means, necessarily not to occupy the latter. What we put out in the open, whether its our best physical features or the decorations in the public spaces of our homes, we imagine and expect will be seen. What we strategically conceal, whether the less than sightly parts of our bodies or the incriminating records of our browsing of the internet, we trust will, by that concealment, be known only by ourselves and seen by none save those to whom we choose to reveal it.

That we regard this divide as crucial to our well-being is seen best in the unhappy reactions we have in finding our attempts to separate the two have been thwarted. To discover that no one noticed the lovely planting in our front yard or the new haircut for which we spent both good time and money is to be seriously disappointed. To learn that one's private journal has been read by a stranger, that one's bedroom window has been the means of someone uninvited to gaze on our sleeping form, is not merely an annoyance, but a cause for alarm.

Yet, today the Lord God has revealed just this kind of a breakdown between the seen and the unseen, between what is secret and what is out in the open. Through the prophet Joel, he demands a solemn and public declaration of the fast through the blowing of trumpets and the gathering of the whole people of God. Yet, in doing so, he is asking all of the people, not only through the public laments of the priests, but also through the fasting and prayer of each and all, to make manifest what they might have preferred to keep a secret, namely, that the people of God have betrayed the Law they were called upon to keep and witness so that the nations might praise the name of the Lord.

For his part, Jesus Christ bars his disciples from public displays of penance. Just in case a follower of Christ thought he might garner a little sympathy and earn some honor and respect from his fellows by being known for his heroic fasting to cleanse himself from sin, Jesus insists that he keep it to himself. Jesus demands that this disciples ought to do nothing to elicit sympathy from other, much less respect and awe, for what ought to be a way to be free from a sinful and false vision of one's self. We fast, after all, to repent our sins and be more faithful to the Gospel, and we know that this is God's work in us and not our merit. So, Jesus asks us, what moral or spiritual good is there in trumpeting that fact to others if our goal is that we might look better as a result?

In the end, as Jesus reminds us, God our Father is, at one and the same time, a hidden God, a God who is in secret and who is known only by the Son and those whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Yet, while secret in his ineffable glory, the Father is intimately present to all, and seeth in secret. Everything is manifest to him, and nothing is hidden. The careful dance we do to negotiate with ourselves just what to reveal and what to conceal turns out to be ultimately empty, whatever transitory meaning it may have in the world. We are seen, and there is nothing of ours that is ultimately secret, only God himself, whose deepest inner life remains always clothed in unapproachable light.

So, as we begin again our observance of Lent, God calls us to remember that we are seen, that what really counts and really matters will not go unnoticed. He reminds us that our every little victory is known by him, our every mitigating factor that bars our way to Christian love, our every best hope and best effort. We need not fear that God will not see our trials and difficulties as we turn away from our petty loves on our journey back to him. We need not try to convince anyone else by public show. Indeed, we need not even try to convince ourselves through extravagant private penances. What we are asked to do in this season, rather, is to learn through our penance, our prayer, our fasting, and our almsgiving, how it is that God sees us. We are to discover by our Lenten practices what it is God sees when he looks upon us in secret. Much of it may be unsightly, some of it even disheartening. Yet, what he sees most and best is a son or daughter born again to new lift by the waters of baptism and made by the Spirit of his Love to conform to the image of his beloved Son. This is the deep and secret truth that God wants nothing to conceal from us.

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