Ash Wednesday/2016 February 10, 2016

by Vitor Westhelle
Professor of Systematic Theology

Dear friends, sisters and brothers,

My task here is to announce you good news of the Gospel for today. They are straight forward. Keep your good deeds hidden and know where you heart is. The Gospel is always so marvelously simple: Hide and seek that is all there is to it. Really?

Even as we have a recently new curriculum we are still not quite sure of all that takes to master all the skills that are required from us to be stewards of God’s gifts, pastors of God’s flock, witness of God’s message, ambassadors of the Republic of God. We need, to this end, to learn some philology as well as some philosophy, some Hebrew as well some Greek (not to mention some Latin and German, due to occupational hazards), historiography, sociology, anthropology, administration, psychology and so many other –ologies we don’t even care to recite; all this to be responsible house-keepers.

The Gospel for today tells us that there are two other disciplines we need to master, and they should be at the core. So add this to your list and find them out in the curriculum. They are hidden, but they are there. We need to know that these are disciplines we must master: ophthalmology and cardiology.  So let me run by you the course profile for the first. 1) Ophthalmology: “This course is designed to explore the capabilities of vision. The student shall learn how to see clearly the difference between Law and Gospel, between the public and the private, the letter and the spirit.” The outcome is “to grow into the art of drawing the difference between revelation and the hiddenness, between secrecy and transparency.” The basic competency is to develop the ability to find it because it is apparently hidden, it is a secret course. Hidden, but, insofar as it is a curriculum for a public church, it is everywhere! It does not need to be announced as a course in the curriculum, for it is the curriculum. Transparency, a 20 x 20 vision is for a public church what WikiLeaks is for the internet.

Transparency, right? Well, not so fast. In the Gospel lesson for today three times the call for secrecy is issued. Three times we hear that those who don’t keep the secret have already received their compensation and nothing else should they expect, no response from God—that channel of communication is closed. Three times we hear the mantra: “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” The presupposition is that you keep something in secret, something you hide for God to find. Something kept out of sight, out of vision, not open to the public gaze.

But this seems to pertain only to few things. The text only mentions secrecy as far as alms-giving, prayer, and fasting are concerned. However, if one takes a closer look at what these three little exceptions to transparency mean, the story seems different. Included is all we do for others physically, materially (alms-giving is the example, but it includes all that concretely help others, including paying taxes, e.g.). Then there is all that concerns our social standing and our public perception (prayer is the example, but includes all that concerns our public persona, how do we project ourselves). And finally it pertains to all what we do to take care of ourselves (fasting is the example, but includes all that we do concerning the environment that our bodies occupy, starting with the care of the self and how we use it, which includes all that our bodies touch and we are materially connected to all). So, there is quite a field covered by secrecy, thinks that ought to be kept out of sight. Ophthalmology in a theological perspective is not only about seeing, it is equally about hiding, keeping out of sight.

Ophthalmology in the Christian faith is the art of distinguishing between what belongs to God’s eyes only and for us to keep hidden from public sight, and that which belongs to the public gaze. The difference is in what we do to be acknowledged by others, and what we do for the body of the other, for the well-being of those whose life we may touch. When we do it for acknowledgment we have already our reward. This already means that there is no beyond, there is nothing outside of our field of vision. But when we do it for another, for the world, without PR, then we have a wealth deposited in the hidden treasury of God. How to make this distinction calls for wisdom.

In his book Works of Love, Søren Kierkegaard gives the example of the most genuine work of love. It is, he says, what we do for someone who has died, for such work is pure donation, it does not fall back into an economy of exchange. An analogous thing can be said about secrecy. Secrecy of a good deed is the only way it remains a good deed, an act of love otherwise it is commerce.

The problem with PR I s not that it produces a good image of ourselves. Jesus even says we should not play the victim’s card or any other politically correct game but be the best we can, be ourselves, look good. The problem with PR is when it is used to disguise, to masquerade the rotten side of ourselves, what we call our sinfulness. This is the secrecy that is abhorrent and repugnant. But the secrecy Jesus speaks about is of not making a display of oneself. (It could mean for a woman wear a hijab—I am thinking of prof. Hawkins of Weathon—above all when the proper piety disapproves.) What appears, what comes to the public gaze is in itself ambivalent. The question is what it shows. Is it a show of our persona to project it larger than life, or does it point to a gift that in humbleness is disguised?

 If you will come today to be marked with a cross of ashes, don’t do it to make a display of your rightful piety, don’t make it a PR; carry it as a stain of dishonor that the cross of Christ did to blot out, to hide, to cover up a sin no longer hidden, no longer kept as a secret, but confessed, brought to the open and then by God forgiven, blotted out. The blot itself is there to testify that underneath there was an acknowledged blemish. The blot is not an adornment, it is a disgraceful stigma given by sheer grace.  Carry it as the mark Cain carried, that marked him as a criminal, and yet it is also the shield of God’s holy promise. Carry it to say that you are at once sinful and yet made righteous, simul iustus et peccator. Wear it as a gesture of love to the One who died. And the season we begin today is for us to take seriously that period we place after “he died.” Respect that period at the end, and show that respect by doing your deeds for the one who died!

Secrecy is a tricky issue. How do we know if the way we project our image is self-serving. This calls for further wisdom. The text gives a clue: “Where your treasure is, there is your heart.” This is the other discipline you need to master: “Cardiology,” more specifically “cardio-topography.” You need to be able to locate the place of the heart. But the lesson in cardiology is rather simple. We complicate it. We place the heart everywhere: in insignias, in valentine cards, or in dollar bills, in bank accounts, in the house of one’s dream, or place it to drive the fancy new car, or we lay it to sun bade in the deck of a yacht, or else place the heart in our looks. Complicated places to leave one’s heart! But it is so commonly done, when we should know that the correct place for the heart is exactly where it is best located (and for that you don’t need to transfer funds): hidden in the depth of the chest cavity in the inner of our flesh, the very place that God has chosen to be, hidden in the depth of the flesh. Keep it hidden there for there is where God has invested Godself with presence, with vision. We call it incarnation.


Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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