As a quirky reminder that Lent begins next week - on Ash Wednesday - I offer this story:
Hal hesitated to drop by his pastor’s office, but he did. He was wrestling with last Sunday’s pulpit invitation to take part in the Ash Wednesday service.
Hal’s first words to his pastor took on a challenging tone:
“Andy, I don’t want to attend tomorrow night’s service. Not because I’m indifferent. It’s more some kind of fear. I’m here today because I thought you might tell me what’s going on.”
Andy didn’t say a word. Hal’s words, along with the intensity in his voice and face, caught him off guard.
Yet after a few moments of silence, Andy began to realize silence was an appropriate first response to Hal’s statement. For it’s in the silence of our lives that the mysteries of God often touch us most deeply.
Finally, Andy looked directly at Hal and said softly, “Hal, before I tell you what I think might be going on, I’d like to hear what you think is going on. It sounds like you’re taking Ash Wednesday a little more seriously this year than most of us usually do.”
So after a few stuttering starts and stops, Hal told his pastor about issues at work and home that were pushing him into longer and longer moments of reflection. It was Hal’s inner wrestling match that caused him to wonder about Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday service is like no other service held during the year.
Hal was afraid he couldn’t go through the motions of the Ash Wednesday ritual as he had in years past. He was afraid he might break down and cry in front of everyone if he let himself experience the pain and loneliness he only recently had begun to admit privately to himself.
Again, silence bonded the two men. Then Andy rose from his chair, went to the “clown wall” in his office, and returned with two masks.
Both appeared white and full-faced. But one had colors that seemed to make the white almost invisible at first glance.
“Hal, you know how much I enjoy clowns,” Andy said. “We’ve even talked about the power of clowning as a form of Christian ministry. Do you remember what the clown faces mean, like in these masks?”
After thinking a moment, Hal responded, “Yeah. White is the symbol of death and color represents life.”
“That’s right,” Andy said. “This all-white mask is a death mask. In fact, it’s my death mask. I had it made when I was on a retreat with men and women who are living - and dying - with AIDS.
“Mine was the first made, but it wasn’t the most powerful one made, at least not for me.
“To watch some of those folks have plastersoaked strips of gauze molded on their faces was a powerful moment. But tears came to my eyes later when I saw a few of these young men and women decorating their death masks with vibrant colors.
“They knew their bodies were dying. But they also realized a new form of life awaited them, now and after death.
“Hal, it sounds like you’re a little confused about which mask to wear to the Ash Wednesday Service,” Andy said.
“The confessional nature of Ash Wednesday suggests a death mask is more appropriate,” Andy continued. “Yet after the imposition of the ashes, we are ritually reminded of God’s forgiveness.
“So which mask do you wear? The death mask or the resurrection mask? Or do you bring both and switch one for the other at a certain point in the service?”
Hal replied: “I think I see what you mean, Andy. But I’m confused by your mask analogy. I think of masks as hiding our true feelings. But you talk like I might wear the death mask when I’m in a mood to confess, and the colorful mask when I feel upbeat and ready to enjoy life.”
The minister responded: “We may wear the very same mask for two very different reasons - one time to conceal and another time to reveal. Our motives are rarely totally one way or the other.
“It can get pretty confusing to us when we wear those masks. It can also be confusing for others who care enough about us to want to know why we’re pretending to be what we aren’t.
“You and I both know that sometimes we shape our bare faces to hide the pain, the anger or the fear that besets our lives at one time or another. We don’t want many people to know about our inner struggles.
“Often, that privacy and discretion are very appropriate.”
“But Andy,” Hal interrupted, “don’t you get tired of wearing a mask? I sure do!”
“I certainly do,” replied Andy. “I get really tired when every day seems like a masquerade party.
“I keep looking for the courage and the people I can trust so I can take off the mask-of-the-moment. Sometimes I find the courage after I find the people. Sometimes I find the people after I claim the courage.
“Hal, as you think ahead to tomorrow’s service, which do you think you need to remove more - the death mask or the resurrection mask?”
“I don’t know, Andy,” Hal answered. “If I remove the death mask, does that mean I only want forgiveness without confession? But if I remove the resurrection mask, am I just wallowing in my own confession?”
“My question was a trick question, Hal. If you observe Ash Wednesday with us, you just may find out that, with God, no mask is needed. Remember, Ash Wednesday takes place after Mardi Gras, after the masquerade, Andy.
“Part of the Good News is that it’s a ‘no-mask party,’ hosted by our God, who is eager to love and enjoy you face to face, just as you are, Hal.
“The rest of the Good News is that God will be there, just as God is. Will you be there tomorrow night?”
Hal’s answer was on his face, no mask needed.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Paul Graves The Spokesman-Review