Volume 35, No. 4
“We Are but Masks”
My friend and mentor from Atlanta, Rev. Dr. Steven Sheeley, has written a lot about dust, dirt, and ashes. He said, “And every now and then my study and teaching of biblical texts took me back down those dirt roads, as an analogy of the dusty roads of ancient Judea. The cultural anthropologists gave me a context to explore the relationship between physical space and the cultural concepts of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean,’ and I always enjoyed the discussions about just how we defined what was ‘dirt.’”
To come to this day, this Ash Wednesday moment, we hear the admonition that we are ‘but dust’ and we will eventually return to that simple and “pre-enlivened” state. We feel as if we are fragile and frail, precariously held together until a hard rain or a strong wind erodes our best efforts and our fraught dreams. We struggle and strain to keep the spaces in our lives “clean” and free from dirt and dust. We often desire to hide our faults, our “dirt,” so that we give a persona of having it all together, that we’re living large, or that we’re living our best life. But ultimately, our squeaky-clean lives are still dusty. We are “but dust” and that is humbling and on many days disturbing.
To be reminded we are “but dust” as we enter another Lenten season is unsettling because we’ve swept our emotional and spiritual floors this year, hoping to get them clean. Yet, we’ve come to find out we are living on dirt floors and our repetitive actions are futile. We don’t need Ash Wednesday or Lent to remind us of the suffering and sorrow of Jesus and the spiritual posture of penitence. No, we’ve been through a season of COVID-19. We’ve been wearing masks for a year. These masks have been our marks of mortality, not in cruciform ash on our foreheads, but as cloth on our noses and mouths. We know how mortal and fragile we are, for God’s sake.
What if, this year, we see the masks we wear not only as a sign of our mortality but as a promise of grace and protection? The ashen cross of Ash Wednesday reminds us of our fragility and impermanence, and yet that same cross gives us hope that we are loved despite our dust and even because we are dust. We are loved and forgiven and protected by a God who put on the dirtiness of flesh to imprint on our hearts a love of humanity and a promise of paradise. And masks, this cold pandemic season, also remind us that we are protected even as we inch near to the possibilities of death. I wonder if we have a new sign on our faces this Ash Wednesday and Lenten season, new reminders of our dustiness.
This Lent will feel eerily similar to the yearlong journey we’ve experienced during the pandemic. But, it is my hope that we don’t simply attempt to sweep the dirt floors of our houses. It is my prayer that we abide in the presence of the spirit of God among us and within us that creates and re-creates clean hearts. May the ashes we wear on our foreheads draw us closer to the Christ who dwelt among us. And may the masks we wear each and every day draw us closer to one another in respect and in hope, as we all journey this dusty road to the cross, and eventually to resurrected life, together.