Remove the Mask
If you’ve ever been a patient in a hospital, you know the feeling.
Weakness, vulnerability, need.
The experience of illness or pain makes us aware of our weakness and vulnerability. There, lying in a strange bed or stretcher, you are dependent, because of your weakness, on someone else – on a stranger. These people who tend to you give you strange pills, poke you with needles and read that indecipherable computer that beeps every time you breathe or your heart beats.
But even there, there is a sense of comfort and peace. You are being cared for – even in the midst of pain, doubt and dependence, you know that these people are there to help you become well. It’s that care that respects our weakness and responds that gives us the confidence to say, “Help me! I need you.”
Vulnerability can do different things to us. In the face of our weaknesses, our shortcomings, we can build up a wall around ourselves and “protect” ourselves from others. Because, when we are vulnerable and weak, we can be hurt – we can be hurt badly. Perhaps we’ve had this experience in our lives. As children experience pain and hurt and heartache in their families, they grow into adolescents and adults who cannot truly be intimate for fear of repeating that hurt. Maybe we never really allow ourselves to be vulnerable – or at least appear vulnerable – at all. Perhaps we create a “tough” image, a false face that we can present to others so that our true self is protected.
We can put on masks – something we are very familiar with this time of year. We present ourselves as we might want to be or wish we were rather than who we really are. Such unauthentic composure may seem to keep us safe, but it does not allow us to truly encounter one another – much less God.
The Pharisee in the gospel shows us how this can work in our prayer. Rather than taking a good, deep look at his relationship with God, he “prays to himself” and compares himself to others. He is thankful, but he is thankful that he is “not like the rest of humanity”. The interesting thing is that he does accurately portray humanity’s fallen condition: “greedy, dishonest, adulterous”. His problem is that he is not authentically portraying himself – as part of that same humanity. He does not see himself as God sees him, because he has taken the place of God in his prayer.
He does not express an honest relationship with God; rather, he shows his “mask”: how wonderful he is in fulfilling all the precepts that he deems important. We get the sense that his gaze is not lifted to God but that he is giving a performance for anyone who might be around. His vulnerability is not apparent because all we see is the front he puts up – all we see is the show.
The other way our vulnerability can affect us is that we learn to trust, to depend – to rely on others. Weakness teaches us that we are not completely in control and that part of who we really are is a person in communion with others. This is the experience of the person in the hospital bed – the family who has lost everything in a devastating fire – the parents of the dying child. This is need. This is real.
The tax collector shows us the authenticity that weakness can bring out of us. He is aware of who he is, and he brings that weakness to God. In the temple, he is without a mask; there is no show. He prays before God as he is – a sinner. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” The tax collector, because he can recognize who he is before God, can also recognize the God before whom he stands. God is merciful – and it is precisely our weakness that lays claim to that mercy.
Without vulnerability there is no need for mercy – without weakness there is no need for another’s strength – without injury there is no need of healing.
Jesus’ lesson to his audience – and to us – is that righteousness, that perfect relationship with God, does not come from any mere human construction. It is not a matter of our masks, our show, our walls that we build. No – it is a matter of realizing who we are in God’s eyes and celebrating that relationship. St. Francis of Assisi once said, “What a man is in God’s eyes, that he is and nothing more.” Vulnerability teaches us humility, and humility is at the heart of prayer.
Today, as we come before our God in this temple, may we be able to set aside our masks and embrace our weakness, so as to lay claim to the love and mercy of God. Here, let our prayers – the prayer of the lowly – pierce heaven. Our God comes to us in this Eucharist, in the humble form of Bread and Wine, always teaching us that when we humble ourselves – far from being laid vulnerable and open to hurt – we are truly opened to the real life of God. And that is what it means to truly be exalted.