I had an epiphany in our Lenten Study.
[Are epiphanies allowed during Lent? Even after 19+ years working at Woodridge United Methodist Church, I still get confused about ecclesial particularities like the seasons of the church year. Which seems silly. I’ve now been working and worshiping in the UMC longer than I attended the American Baptist Church of my youth. Why does my profoundly non-liturgical upbringing still hold such sway? (Well, non-officially-liturgical. I know every body has a liturgy. Some, like my home church, aren’t overt about it. It’s more subconscious.) I suppose the overly strong influence of (church) families of origin upon worship preferences is a post for another day.]
The way this year’s study works is that each week we read the assigned chapter in Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking, which always begins by directing us to that section of scripture to which the chapter is responding. This third week of the study directed us to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, verses 1-18.
As you may remember, the lectionary calls us to read much of those same verses every year on Ash Wednesday. In particular, the part wherein Jesus commands us to pray in secret, give in secret, and fast in secret. We read that on Ash Wednesday. You know, the day on which we put a big ol’ mark on our foreheads? Totally conspicuous, obvious, and the farthest-thing-from-secret? That day?
I’ve often wondered about that odd confluence. I’d say it strikes me as, well, hypocritical. Comically so, in fact.
But in the process of reading those verses a few times, reading the McLaren chapter, and talking about all of it with the considerate folks in our study group, a new thought struck me: what if that dissonance is on purpose?!?
What if the off-putting juxtaposition of that text and that public action is purposefully there to force us to face our own hypocrisy?? We read about praying, giving, fasting in secret then put that big mark on our forehead to show that we’ve prayed and then, quite often, talk about what we’re giving up for Lent. In other words, we often talk with each other about from what we intend to fast.
I mean, really. If that’s not comedy, what is? Perhaps I’ve been too busy taking myself too seriously on that perhaps too-somber day to be able to laugh at myself. It seems so obvious now. It’s so over-the-top ridiculous, I have no idea how I never saw it before. We who claim to follow Jesus are so often also the same ones quite ready to call out the hypocrisy in others…maybe Ash Wednesday is supposed to help us laugh at our own hypocrisy instead. A physical embodiment of humility.
After all, that’s exactly what comedy (at it’s best) is for: bringing down the haughty and lifiting up the lowly.
What do you think? Could Ash Wednesday be the best kind of joke – one in which we literally wear our own hypocrisy on our foreheads, on purpose!? If so, why have I not noticed before now?