Mardi Gras, which literally means Fat Tuesday in French, is one last day of revelry before the solemn season of Lent begins. One of the traditions of Mardi Gras is wearing masks. It’s not just a fun thing to do, but it actually has some religious significance. For the day after Mardi Gras ends, Ash Wednesday, the day when Lent begins, is the day when we remove our masks.
Back in ancient Greece, when they had plays, the actors wore very large masks to portray their characters. That way, even in an enormous Greek amphitheatre, people could see the facial expressions of the actors. The theatrical mask was called a persona. It’s a word that has been adopted in modern psychology to refer to the self that we present to the world around us. Our persona is our psychological clothing. Carl Jung said that “the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is.” It’s a mask that we can hide behind.
We all wear these masks. In many ways they’re useful. They can define the role we fill in the world around us and help us feel comfortable with one another. Sometimes we also wear masks to protect ourselves from being too vulnerable to others. That’s not such a bad thing either. We learn what we need to do to protect ourselves in life, and that includes knowing the appropriate masks we need to wear in different settings.
But our masks become a problem for us when we use them to hide who we really are from other people so that no one ever really gets to know us. Our masks become an even bigger problem for us when we use them to hide the truth about who we really are from ourselves. And, our masks become the biggest problem of all when we use them in an attempt to hide who we really are before God.
The truth is, despite our best efforts to hide behind the masks we wear, God knows who we really are. The point of Lent is to return to the relationship we have with God. The first step on our Lenten journey involves removing the masks so that we can be honest about who we are. On Ash Wednesday, when we go home after worship and look in the mirror, we will see a reminder that we are mortal, that our time on this earth is limited and that our lives belongs to God. Our masks will be gone and on each of our foreheads we’ll see an ashen cross.
The life of faith is not about the masks we wear that make us look like good, moral people. The life of faith is about the relationship we have with God, and that relationship doesn’t stand a chance unless it’s honest.
So many people miss this. They tend to focus on Lent as a time to clean up their act and they’ll engage in pious activities like fasting and good old fashioned groveling in confession for their sins. Those aren’t bad things to do, but they don’t necessarily lead us to a more authentic relationship with God. In fact, they can actually become yet another mask that we use to hide behind. For as long as we approach Lent with our agendas, we’re presenting a false self to God. We’re filling a role that we have created to God and we’re not the authentic people God has created us to be. We’ve become the religious person praying on the street corner when God longs to meet the person we are in the privacy of our room with the door shut, in secret.
So, how do you do that? How do you remove the mask you hide behind so you can have an authentic relationship with God? You won’t get there by directing how your relationship with God will go. You can’t make it happen by talking to God or searching for God. You can only meet God by getting your persona out of the way. It happens in moments when you’re open, undefended and immediately present.
God isn’t a commodity you can control. You can’t tell God what to do or invite God to be a part of your life because God is already present. The priest Richard Rohr has said: “God’s Spirit is dwelling within you. You cannot search for what you already have. You cannot talk God into ‘coming’ into you by longer and more urgent prayers. All you can do is become quieter, smaller, and less filled with your own self and its flurry of ideas and feelings. Then God will be obvious in the very now of things.”
It can be scary to stand before God, stripped of all pretenses. But it’s the only way to a genuine relationship with him. God doesn’t want our religiosity, God wants our authenticity. As Psalm 51 reminds us, “God takes no delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart God will not despise.”
So, are you ready to get serious about your relationship with God? Are you ready to stop controlling that relationship by insisting on your own spiritual agenda? Are you ready to remove the mask of the false self you wear to keep your distance from God so you can open yourself up to an honest relationship with the one who knows you better than you know yourself? It’s time to stop trying to prove you’re someone of value by all your doing doing doing, and just be. Be the person you are, God’s beloved child. It’s time to stop pretending. It’s time to get real.