I read a book review recently in the Wall Street Journal and the reviewer, John Kaag, wrote something that jumped out at me as I’ve been thinking about Lent; he wrote, “When I was learning to swim, a powerful yet diminutive athlete—my 5-foot mother—gave me a tip: ‘Everything that actually matters, John, happens beneath the surface.’ At the time, I thought it was nonsense. I wanted to be seen. My splashing and thrashing were visible signs of my speed. My mother just shook her head: They were signs of something, but definitely not speed.”
Everything that actually matters happens beneath the surface. Jesus seems to be saying something very similar in today’s gospel reading from Matthew: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” So much of our lives are ordered around being seen by others, but Jesus says it shouldn’t be so with faith. He tells us to look seriously at our lives and ask: Am I trying to draw closer to God, or am I simply hoping that others will think I’m a holy person?
Ash Wednesday is a quirky day, because we seem to be doing the very thing that Jesus tells us not to do: Smudging our foreheads with ashes and then going back out into the world, so that others can see that we’ve been to church. However, the message that we are meant to proclaim with our smudged foreheads is not that we’re especially holy but rather that we seek to draw closer to God who is the source of all holiness.
The season of Lent that we begin today is a time for us to worry not so much about the exterior aspects of our faith that others might see, but the interior parts that God alone can see. Everything that actually matters happens beneath the surface. It’s good advice for learning how to swim, and it’s even better advice for a life of faith.
The Rev. D. Andrew Olivo
Appointed readings for today: Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21