Just Below the Surface: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Photo by Rey Spadoni

There’s the part of the iceberg you can see… and then there’s the much bigger part that lies just below the surface and which you cannot see. So often in life, there’s something that lies just below the surface and which is not so easily known or noticed, but which ends up being quite important.

For example, have you ever had this experience? You decide that today is the day, this is going to happen… it’s time to get in shape, to eat healthier, to drop those extra pounds. Just below the surface, you may be feeling this way primarily because you just ate a huge meal. Much different is the situation when you are hungry. I know that if I’m full, I can walk away from those Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups no problem. But if I’m hungry, really hungry, it’s a different story altogether. [I apologize for mentioning Reece’s on a day when we’re all supposed to be fasting.]

That’s a silly and trivial example, but the great writer and spiritual leader, Thomas Merton, took the same concept one step further when he said: “It is easy enough to tell the poor to accept their poverty as God’s will when you yourself have warm clothes and plenty of food and medical care and a roof over your head and no worry about the rent. But if you want them to believe you – try to share some of their poverty and see if you can accept it as God’s will yourself!”

The context matters. That’s the part that lies just below the surface.

In the Gospel reading for today, we are shown hypocrisy, when people make a big deal about their faith, their sacrifices, their good deeds… all largely for show, to demonstrate just how good they are. The show part is what you see – up on the surface. But God sees what’s below the surface. Always.

Which is quite interesting because today is a day, more so than any other in our church calendar, when we do something basically… for show. We get fat black smudges across our foreheads that indicate what we believe in. I think that if an alien race landed here in front of the church and walked into our Ash Wednesday celebration, what they would see and hear would sound somber, serious, and dismal. They would observe us putting those black smudges on each other while saying: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.” I think those aliens would say to themselves: “What exactly are these people celebrating here?”

But just below the surface, we understand that while part of us is dust, and only that, another part of us prevails and soars toward eternity.

Part of us has a nagging inclination toward sin. Another part of us ever strives for the divine.

Part of us values independence and self sufficiency. Another part of us knows that we are nothing without the love of our creator God.

Part of us kneels at the foot of the cross in suffering. Another part of us, the bigger part of us that you can’t always see, rises up on the third day to be united with the source of all goodness and light.

And so, dear alien friends, this is our faith. And this is what we celebrate here.

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