Who's Behind the Mask?
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Lent begins this upcoming week. If you’re not accustomed with the season of Lent, there’s a brief paragraph about it under the announcements in the bulletin this week. In a nutshell, Lent is a period of 40 days (excluding Sundays) during which we spiritually prepare for the celebration of Easter. Lent will kick off, so to speak, on Ash Wednesday which is immediately preceded by Fat Tuesday (or Shrove Tuesday is its more proper name). Some of you may recall that, last year, I was out of town on Fat Tuesday. This year, I’m looking forward to our annual Fat Tuesday pancake supper for missions. It raises money for an important mission, United Methodist Africa University in Zimbabwe. So I hope all of you will attend on Tuesday and bring a friend.
As I thought about our Fat Tuesday celebration, I was curious about the Mardi Gras tradition of masks. I looked online and the best answer I could get is that they were originally used to hide people’s identities… wow, good thing I had the internet to uncover that ingenious explanation.
We human creatures do enjoy wearing masks though, don’t we – both literally and figuratively? We learn to don those masks at an early age. When we fall and skin a knee and the adult near us says, “Now, now; don’t cry. You’re just fine.” Or when we get teased on the playground and we’re encouraged to simply ignore it; to behave as if we don’t even hear those taunts and giggles. So we learn to put on a different face to conceal our inward hurt.
I get migraines now and then. I got a lot of them in my 30’s; so many, in fact, that I learned to just push through the pain and go about my day. I have a friend, Mary Lynn, who’s a nurse. If I was in the throes of a migraine and walked into a room where Mary Lynn was present, even though I smiled and tried to act like my usual perky self, Mary Lynn within moments would size me up and say, “You’ve got a migraine, don’t you.” I don’t how she did that. But I couldn’t conceal it from her. She claimed she could see it on my face.
It is true; often the masks we don are used to disguise what is really inside. And, in a certain sense, that is what we see happening in this morning’s gospel story. It is the story of Jesus being transfigured on a mountain. 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 behind that mask. We get a glimpse of what Jesus carries inside of him – the glory of God. And that glory must be quite the thing to see. It certainly impressed Peter, James and John. On that Mount of Transfiguration, the mask of Jesus’ flesh is lifted and those three disciples can see God’s glory on the face of their Lord.
But, I feel obliged to give it to you straight. The story of Jesus’ Transfiguration begs for a larger context; a context that more accurately defines or interprets it. There is something that lies beneath it, behind it; frankly, all around it. Something casts a shadow over it, something not quite so attractive. The larger context of Jesus’ transfiguration begins much earlier in chapter 9, when Jesus asks of his disciples this important question: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples provide a variety of answers, what they’ve been hearing from the crowds. But then Jesus wants to know who they think he is. After all, they are the ones who’ve spent the most time with him; surely no one knows him as well as they do. Now, in response to that question, Peter gives a surprisingly brilliant and perceptive answer: “The Messiah of God,” he says. Wow. How cool is that? Peter seems to finally be catching on.
But then, Jesus the teacher begins to instruct them a little more. He tells, in fact sternly orders them, that they’re not to share that information with anyone. Ssh... Keep it on the down low. And then Jesus explains to them what his secret identity means. He will “undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” He continues by explaining what that means for them, as his disciples. He says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Talk about a downer.
It is eight days later, the gospel writer tells us, when Jesus ascends that mountain to pray, accompanied by these three disciples, and this strange and peculiar thing called transfiguration takes place. Yet, even there on the mountain, they get a mixed message. In the midst of this bedazzling glory, Moses, Elijah and Jesus are talking about his departure, his exodus which is a reference to Jesus’ crucifixion. And so, this glorious event of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop is reframed within the context of his journey toward Jerusalem, a journey that will conclude with a cross. How can it be that the face of glory is also a face of death? Come on, Jesus, enough of this depressing stuff; just put on a happy face.
You know, a couple decades back, we United Methodists published a new Book of Worship and, among the changes in it, was the suggestion to observe Palm Sunday as Palm/Passion Sunday. And why, you might ask? Well, because not many people go to church on Good Friday. And really, who can blame them; it is a pretty depressing occasion. We’d just as soon transition from those Palm Sunday “Hosannas” to the victorious shouts of “Christ is risen; he is risen indeed” without having to stop along the way to hear those nasty “Crucify him! Crucify him!s”
I confess to you; I’m stealing a page out of that playbook. This year, I told the Mission Committee I’d like to provide a brief “Ash Wednesday” worship time to come between the pancake table and the parking lot. I’m calling it “From Beads to Ashes.” In other words, before you gather up your colorful Mardi Gras beads and head for home, stop in the sanctuary and trade in those beads for ashes. It won’t be too painful, I hope. But there’s really no denying what those ashes symbolize. They are a reminder of our own mortality and a reminder of our sinfulness. And so again, I feel obliged to give it to you straight. In that fifteen minute time of worship, there’ll still be talk of sin and death because there’s really no escaping it. All we need to do is look around each day. People are still wounding one another: spiritually, physically, economically. Every day we can still see injustice around the world and in our back yards.
And, here’s the thing… No matter how much we try to hide our eyes from the ugly stuff in this world, it will still be there. We can’t mask it… even when we try. We’re not fooling anyone… and really, there’s no compelling reason to pretend, no justifiable motivation to bury our heads in the sand because, friends, ours is not just an Easter faith; it’s a Good Friday faith, too; it’s not just a Fat Tuesday faith; it’s an Ash Wednesday faith; it’s not just a resurrection faith, it’s a crucifixion faith. In fact, you can’t have one without the other.
We live in a sinful, hurtful world and sometimes, as Christians, we like to pretend that everything is fine… even when it’s not. You know, surveys are done to discover why it is that un-churched people shy away from the church. One of the top reasons given is that church people act as if they’ve got it all together. So, un-churched people who might be struggling to keep it together fear they won’t fit in with all our bright, shiny faces and well-ordered lives. But if they came a little closer, maybe we wouldn’t be able to fool them anymore. I suspect our masks are more transparent than we think. Maybe if they came a little closer, they could see our pain – like my friend Mary Lynn could always spot my migraines.
Now, I imagine sometimes we worry that it wouldn’t seem very Christian of us to show those faces of pain, discouragement or fear. So we mask them… even from one another. Like Eleanor Rigby of Beatles’ fame; wearing a face that we keep in a jar by the door. Who is that really for?
We put on our mask because what would people here at church think of us if they knew we were struggling to keep our marriage together? What would people here at church think of us if they knew we lay awake in bed at night worried sick about where our kids are and what they’re doing and why we just can’t seem to get through to them anymore? What would people here at church think of us if they knew we’d spent all our savings; were struggling to pay our mortgage and just an absolute financial disaster? What would people here at church think of us if they knew we were angry at that sick parent who never had time for us as children but now demands so much of our time? Of course, we’ll wax philosophical about the challenges of life in the post-modern world. But we’ll keep the specifics to ourselves; thank you very much. Now, don’t misunderstand me. We’re all entitled to a little privacy… but could it be possible that our privacy has become a mask to hide behind; an effort to disguise what is really inside?
Friends, we are, ultimately, Easter people; but to get there we have to pass through the season of Lent… even Jesus had to walk that painful journey to Jerusalem. We are resurrection people, but sometimes for a season, we find ourselves living in a Good Friday world. And when we do, we do Jesus no disrespect to name it for what it is… After all, Jesus had no trouble calling it like it was. Friends, when we don those smiley masks on days we feel like crying, we – in a certain sense – run the risk of only presenting half the face of Jesus to others because the face of Jesus that shined with a bright and glorious radiance on that mountain top, no doubt was contorted; wincing and cringing with pain on that cross.
Many have heard of Henri Nouwen: a Roman Catholic parish priest, he went on to teach at some of our nation’s most prestigious academic institutions – Notre Dame and Yale and Harvard Divinity Schools. But he spent the final years of his ministry serving handicapped people at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Ontario. Nouwen notes that, serving as a priest, he had been well equipped to “help” the people in his parish by addressing their questions, problems and pain. He further notes that, as a professor, he was encouraged to do his own thing and outside the classroom free to do as he saw fit since we all have the right to live our private lives privately. It was not until L’Arche that Nouwen discovered true Christian community. His mentally challenged brothers and sisters wanted always to know his whereabouts and what he was doing; he had no license to simply do things on his own. Reflecting back over his life, Nouwen wrote: “Living in a community with very wounded people, I came to see that I had lived most of my life as a tightrope artist trying to walk on a high, thin cable from one tower to the other, always waiting for the applause when I had not fallen off and broken my leg.”[i] Friends, as followers of Jesus, we are often tempted to pretend that “victory in Jesus” can wipe away all our troubles, our struggles, our failures. We try to mask the parts of our lives we’re too embarrassed to share with others. And so our journey with Jesus can feel like walking a tight rope. But we need to remember: there’d be no Easter without Good Friday. We live in a sinful, broken world. And there’s no reason to hide from one another that we, too, are sinful and broken. True Christian community – the kind of community Jesus develops with his disciples – calls us to remove our masks and to share our journeys with one another; even the most difficult and discouraging legs of the journey. That is what it means to be disciples of Jesus; that is what it means to be the Church; and that is what it takes to reach beyond our walls with a witness that is genuine and authentic.
And so our Lent begins; and so we journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem.
 Luke 9:22.
 Luke 9:23-24
[i] In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership by Henri Nouwen; Crossroad Publishing Co.; 1989; p. 53.
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