Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Take Off Your Mask

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” - The Book of Common Prayer

With lyrics that sound remarkably like something from the Book of Ecclesiastes, here’s Kansas with “Dust in the Wind.”

Mardi Gras is great fun—we wear masks, eat pancakes, and cut loose to New Orleans music. On Ash Wednesday, Lent begins, and we remove our masks. We have ashes imposed on our foreheads. To do this is to publicly admit that we are human—that we will die someday. Not everyone who attends the service is ready to do it … so they don’t.

Five and a half weeks later, Lent will end with another episode of vulnerability: on Maundy Thursday, we will wash each other’s feet. Not everybody who attends the Maundy Thursday service will be ready to do it … so they won’t.

Between now and then, people will prepare for baptism at the Easter Vigil. On the evening of April 23, we will gather in the darkness to light the new Paschal flame. Illuminated by candlelight, we will hear the story of our faith. And then, as our forty days in the desert draw to a close, we will accompany new Christians to the water. But why do they come to the water? What does baptism do, anyway?

In his booklet “Holy Baptism: A Guide for Parents and Godparents,” theologian John Westerhoff writes:

Baptism is a sacrament, not magic. The purpose of a sacrament is to make us aware of a truth that is not self-evident so that we might benefit from it. Sacraments are symbolic, ritual acts of revelation. Magical acts, on the other hand, are intended to acquire something we would not otherwise be able to possess. Magic, for example, would be an action performed to convince God to do something God would not do without our convincing.

God doesn’t need our baptism—we do. God loves each and every one of us unconditionally, and that’s difficult to believe. God loves us in a way we can’t earn … that we don’t deserve … and that we can never be apart from. Unfortunately, many people go through life unaware of this boundless love, or actively refusing to believe it.

In fact, this kind of love is so hard to believe that we need to engage in a public ritual—a sacrament—to begin to grasp what’s going on here. Jesus himself was baptized, so we are, too. We want to show everybody that God washes away all our sins, all our guilt, all the things that might ever come between us and God’s love.

During the forty days of Lent, we will mute our joy and listen for God’s judging voice. Loving judgment flows from God perpetually, and in that judging, we will find growth. We will undertake self-discipline and prayer. It’s time to do our spring cleaning, clearing out the cobwebs in our minds, scrubbing the dingy corners of our hearts … and, above all, removing our masks so God can see us just as we are. When that happens, we will find that God has always loved and affirmed us and wants us to grow joyfully into the people we were always meant to be.

So come to the water. Come to the table. Come join our family. Come dance and play and be friends with God; God is already friends with you. These are not demands, and they are not requirements. We do it this way because this is how we perceive God at work in the world: inviting, but not forcing. Maybe you’re not ready, but we’re inviting you anyway. Take off your mask. Take off your shoes. Be vulnerable.

We are Christians. Lent and Easter are our story. Come tell the story with us.


  1. A great book on mask removal from Malcolm Boyd: