Lifting the Mask
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 9:28-36
Lent begins this week. Lent is a period of 40 days (excluding Sundays) during which we spiritually prepare for the celebration of Easter. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday which is immediately preceded by Fat Tuesday (or Shrove Tuesday is its more proper name). Fat Tuesday has long been a time of celebration and indulgence, especially in places like New Orleans. (By the way, I encourage joining your Trinity family online at 6:30 on Tuesday, via Zoom, to celebrate Fat Tuesday.)
One tradition associated with Mardi Gras is masks. Of course, over this past year, we’ve been thinking about masks more than any of us would like to, right? But before they became the focus of public health and political debates, masks were thought of differently. As children, we got excited about picking out our Halloween masks. And, throughout our lives, we are all enculturated to use masks of a different sort to disguise what lies within us. Often young boys or women in male-dominated occupations are told not to cry. In so-called “Christian” homes, expressions of anger are discouraged. We’re advised that fear should be hidden lest others exploit or disrespect us. And so, we learn to hide behind masks that cloak our real feelings.
But there’s a danger with that. Perhaps when you were young and made an ugly face, an adult in your life would say, “Your face is going to freeze that way.” Of course, it didn’t. But maybe there’s some truth to that figuratively. When we become good at donning our masks, it becomes, over time, increasingly difficult to take them off and show our true face, our true feelings, our true identity. It becomes increasingly difficult to see and acknowledge what lies beneath the mask.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday and, in a sense, our bible story is about a mask being lifted. In this story, the disciples get to see – for a brief moment – the glory of God on the face of Jesus. Jesus does not hide who he is from these three disciples who have been accompanying him almost everywhere since they first answered the call to follow. When Jesus is transfigured, what is inside clearly shines through. It is as if the mask of human flesh is lifted from Jesus’ face for just a brief time and we see who is beneath that mask. We get a glimpse of what Jesus carries inside of him – the glory of God.
This story of Jesus’ transfiguration marks a turning point in the gospel. Some pretty significant stuff surrounds it. Just before this story, Jesus asks his disciples that well-known question, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter brilliantly answers “The Messiah of God.” But then, Jesus must unpack that for them, letting them know that, to be Messiah, means he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[i] Jesus gives it to them straight. There’s no reason to pretend, to put on a happy face or try to put lipstick on a pig. This is going to get ugly.
Right after his Transfiguration, after Jesus comes down from the mountain, he reminds the disciples yet again saying, “Let these words sink into your ears” and repeats, again, the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem. And just a few verses later, our bible narrator gives it straight to us, the gospel readers, saying, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”[ii] The face so recently aglow with the glory of God has now turned toward the dark shadow of the cross.
Jesus is not reluctant, not even for a moment, to show his face as it is – whether he is in a moment of glory or gruesomeness. His face makes no attempt to pretend or betray… even when the disciples are too thick-headed to comprehend what is happening. Still, Jesus is authentic. He is who he is.
Our gospel writer tells us that Peter, James and John kept silent about what had happened on that mountain. But I often wonder if there were moments on the way to Jerusalem that they remembered that mountaintop glow and if, perhaps, it helped sustain them on their Jerusalem journey. What a gift Jesus gave to them that day. It was a prolepsis, a foreshadowing of resurrection glory yet to come. While they walked a lonesome valley, they carried the memory of that mountaintop.
And that is why, in the wisdom of the Church, this is the bible story read each year before Lent begins. Lent, if we take it seriously, can be a difficult journey. Our Ash Wednesday liturgy invites us to pray for courage and honesty that our self-examination during this season “may be searching and specific rather than safely general.” We are urged to look deep within, to see ourselves as we truly are and to repent of those sins which disfigure our lives and our world. It is an exercise that could easily fill us with despair and fear. So we are given a glimpse of glory to sustain us. There will, undoubtedly, be some ugliness to see both around us and even within us as we walk that lonesome journey toward the cross of Jerusalem. But that is not the end of the story; its end is glory, resurrection, light and grace.
So let us not fear or hide behind masks designed to conceal our insecurities and inadequacies for we, too, bear the image of God’s glory, sometimes shrouded, yet still there. May this be for you a Holy Lent; a lent in which you see yourself and others without disguise, unafraid of the darkness for we trust our journey leads us into the resurrection light.
[i] Luke 9:22. NRSV.
[ii] Luke 9:51.
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