Christianity is a religion of paradoxes and we have a perfect indication of that in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday. On this day, we boldly proclaim the gospel instructing us on the nature of prayer, fasting, and giving. Straight from the mouth of the Lord these words are spoken: beware of practicing your piety before others, when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, and, finally, whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18).
Just prior to hearing this instruction we have listened to the prophet Joel telling us to “blow the trumpet,” “call an assembly” and “proclaim a fast” (Joel 2:15). Then, just after we have taken in all of these readings, we (under normal circumstances) mark our foreheads with a striking and very visible black cross that proclaims to the world that we regard ourselves as penitents and are, thus, entering the sacred season of Lent. This is hardly practicing our piety in secret!
So, what are we to do? Shall we blow the trumpet and announce our fast or refrain from doing so? Gather for public prayer or sequester in our homes? (During this pandemic, this one has been decided for us!) Announce our Lenten commitments on Facebook as a witness to our faith or keep them private? The key lies, I believe, in embracing the paradoxical answer that we ought to do both. For, as the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes tell us: “There is a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
But this is only one of many Christian paradoxes. Christ teaches that the kingdom of Heaven is already here – within us, in fact. Yet, it is also still to be realized. We are taught that there is one faith and one baptism and, also, that there are many rooms in God’s house. We are instructed not to judge and yet, called to speak out on important moral issues of the day as well as to speak up in the face of the small injustices of daily life. We are both sinful and grace-filled; in need of conversion and redeemed. And, of course, the ultimate paradox of our faith is that in dying, we are born to eternal life.
For me, this paradox is great news. It liberates me from religious rigidity. I can freely discern in prayer how God is calling me to live in any given moment. And, thankfully, I can exempt myself entirely from deciding if the faith practice of another is legitimate or not. There is a time for everything in the life of God’s people.
Christine Way Skinner is a lay minister and author. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Theology degree from St. Francis Xavier University and a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. Christine loves trying to find inclusive, compelling and creative ways to pass on the church’s 2000 year old traditions. She also loves art, playing music, reading, gardening and playing board games with her children. Christine’s numerous publications can be found and purchased here.