I had occasion yesterday to reconnect by phone with a friend, a Zen Buddhist priest, whom I hadn’t seen in a while. We were making plans to meet together in person. I told her that Thursday would be the earliest I could meet, because I needed to get through Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday first. She replied without missing a beat, “Oh, we have that in Buddhism too: sukha and duhkha, but I like pancakes and ashes better.”
Sukha and duhkha are roughly translated as “happiness” and “suffering.” I wonder, “Which is the pancakes and which is the ashes?” It would seem that festive Mardi Gras parties represent happiness far more readily than the penitential spirit of our Ash Wednesday observance. In fact, most people just skip the latter altogether. It’s a real downer. Too much focus on sin and suffering.
But maybe pancakes and ashes, Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, aren’t so much opposites as they are mutually illuminating correlates. Mardi Gras is about illusion – putting on masks and pretending to be someone other than ourselves. Part of the act is pretending that the excesses we engage in during the party providing lasting happiness. The mask we wear covers our dissatisfaction with a veneer of conviviality. On Mardi Gras, we put on a literal mask to represent the figurative mask we wear the other 364 days of the year, the image we project of fulfillment when, in truth, we all too often feel pretty empty inside; an emptiness that no amount of pancakes, or champagne, or money, or social status, or career success can alleviate.
Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, is about taking off the mask: the mask of sukha (happiness) that obscures the reality of duhkha (suffering). Jesus picks up on this in his contrast between hypocrites who practice piety to be seen by others – those who want to appear to do good, rather than actually practice justice – and those who practice justice in response to the reward lavished on them by the Father who sees in secret – those who do good no matter what others may think.
The word “hypocrite” at its root means actor, and actors in Jesus’ time wore masks. Jesus is inviting us to take off the mask, to stop pretending to be someone we are not, to stop pretending to be satisfied with the reward provided by being seen by others as having it all together. Take off the mask, and entrust yourself to the Father who already sees what others have missed – good, bad, and ugly – and who still lavishes the treasure of his boundless love on us if we are willing to receive it and, having received it, can not help but share it.
Jesus warns us about the masks we wear, because he knows how easy it is for us to fool ourselves about ourselves, so convinced by the roles we play to entertain, impress, and manipulate others that we lose touch with our real selves and our heart’s deepest longing. He warns us, because he knows that in losing touch with reality in this way we readily become complicit in the lies others tell us to sooth our conscience, saying our prayers and saluting the flag even as we oppress our workers and quarrel and fight and strike with a wicked fist (or predator drone). He warns us, because he knows how often we maintain a faux happiness by refusing to acknowledge the truth of suffering – our own and that of others.
Genuine happiness – the treasure that moth nor rust consumes and thieves can’t steal – begins by taking off the mask, by accepting the truth about ourselves and our world, by letting go of our need to fit in and look good and not make any waves. It is then that we can accept how dissatisfied we are and acknowledge our hunger and thirst for the reward that only God can give.
On Ash Wednesday we are invited to take off the mask and stand naked before our Creator in all our brokenness, and need, and desire, and discover that we are loved just as we are. The Father/Mother who sees us in secret, the self we hide from everyone else, loves us nevertheless, and desires an intimate relationship with us just as we are. This is the reward of which Jesus speaks, the eternal treasure: an intimate, loving relationship with God.
When we take off the mask before God in this way, we can then begin the work of justice in response to the love we now know to be the most real thing in the world; the only treasure that really satisfies our deepest longing. This love burns away all that is false. It is in the ashes of this love that we discover true happiness.
Some years ago, Mother Teresa was being interviewed by a reporter. At the end of the session, the report mentioned to her how much he admired her passion for the poor. Mother Teresa replied, “I don’t have a passion for the poor. I have a passion for Jesus. He has a passion for the poor, so I serve the poor.”
This is what it means to practice authentic piety, to practice justice, and not simply to be seen by others, to maintain a facade. Mother Teresa reveals a humble, even brutal, honesty. It ain’t easy or fun serving the poor. It doesn’t reflect her gifts or even her interests, necessarily. Her ministry is a response to her love of Jesus, her desire to allow that love to direct her actions.
In fact, I would suggest that Mother Teresa was able to serve as she did because the realized it wasn’t about her at all. It was about what Jesus desired to do with and through her. She took off the mask, fell in love, and let God do the rest: regardless of the cost, no matter how others perceived her.
Taking off the mask is hard, even painful. I’d rather stay at the party and eat pancakes. But the ashes that signify our finitude and our failures also open the way to truth and freedom. They serve to get us in touch with the reality of suffering and of the love that heals us. These ashes are the remains of the masks consumed by the fire of God’s love. What remains is an unsurpassable treasure: the knowledge that we are God’s beloved, and that we can act on that knowledge in ways that will heal the world. Amen.