30th OT C ~ "Take off your Mask!" ~ Susan McGurgan


This time of year,

a couple of treasured photographs sit on my mantle,

little dog-eared invitations to joy and gratitude.


One, snapped in late October

many years ago,

shows three boys

sitting on a brick wall.

The oldest one,

grown overnight into something lanky and lean,

has transformed into Count Dracula.

He stares into the camera,

baring plastic fangs,

black wig askew,

swirling his cape and dreaming of candy to come.


The middle one,

forever frozen in mid-giggle,

holds a bow and arrow over his shoulder,

and wears the forest green cap and tunic of Robin Hood,

who on this night in suburban Sherwood Forest,

stole candy from the old to give to the young.

The baby,

whose chubby legs dangle from the wall,

is the wickedest corsair to sail the Ohio seas--

a swashbuckling pirate whose black eyepatch

makes him the most fearsome three-year-old on Lookout Drive.


Another one, taken a few years later,

shows the same boys,

taller,

wiser,

more skilled in the art of extracting the best candy

from the best houses,

transformed for the night

into an octopus, a spider (with orange legs) and a bat.

Delighted with their disguises,

the camera captures them,

just before they ask--for the 1, 750th time--

"Do you think people will recognize us?"

This time of year,

we revel in masks

and costumes

and new identities.

It is a season for make-believe.

A time for camouflage.

A chance to hide who we truly are

behind something surprising and new.


I’m not Robert, or Kevin, or Patrick---

I’m Dracula,

Robin Hood,

The Pirate Jean LaFitte.


I’m not Susan--

I’m Annie Oakley,

or perhaps…yes!

Cleopatra,

Queen of the Nile.


Like three little boys sitting on a wall at Halloween,

or an octopus-child waving stuffed tentacles in the air,

the Pharisee in today’s gospel also wears a mask.

He’s not looking to fill a pillowcase

with Skittles and Gobstoppers and Milky Ways,

he’s looking to hide from God,

and perhaps,

even from himself.


The Pharisee puts on a mask—

praying in a way that tries to disguise his true self from God.

O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity -- greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'


Thank you, God,

that I am not like my neighbor Frank,

who (not sure you noticed this, God) frequently misses Mass

and sometimes cheats on his tax return.

Thank you, God,

that I am not like my cousin Estelle,

who took up residence in a martini glass

ever since her husband left her—

(not that I’m blaming him…)

Thank you, God,

that I am not like that crowd that runs the Booster Club.

They are cliquish and rude,

and really quite full of themselves--

(and they never talk to me...)


Seriously, God,

I go to Mass.

I pay my bills.

I pray the Rosary every Tuesday night without fail.

I donate generously to the food drive,

the building campaign,

and the fund for retired religious.


Thank you God.


But as Jesus makes clear,

this isn’t prayer.

It’s more like a litany of “Me”

or a rousing chorus of George Harrison's, “I, Me, Mine.”

It is a prayer of masks—

a prayer that begins and ends with “Me”

and finds no home in the heart of God.


Meanwhile, the tax collector,

who, by the very nature and reality of his job,

had to collaborate with the Romans

and oppress his neighbors—

a man who most likely profited richly

from the graft and corruption that permeated his world,

simply prayed for God’s mercy.

'O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.'


Oh God, be merciful to us—

Sinners.


Authentic prayer means that we strip ourselves of our masks,

we remove our costumes,

we put aside the characters,

and the make-believe,

and the disguises that we put on for an evening,

or a season,

or even a lifetime,

and stand before God

just as we are.


Authentic prayer means we cannot lie to ourselves

about our flaws,

our sins,

our secret weakness.

We cannot compare ourselves to others,

whose struggles and journeys and lives

are as fragile, and as broken, and as graced

as our own.


We cannot point to someone else’s sin

in the hopes of avoiding the collection notice on our own.


Authentic prayer is a fierce and sometimes lonely landscape.

It requires that we spend time in honest reflection.

It means we look deeply into the mirror while removing our masks,

peeling off our mustache and pirate hat,

taking out our Dracula fangs

setting aside our stuffed tentacles.


There is risk in this,

but there is also incredible freedom.


Oh God, be merciful to me.


God already knows our flaws,

Our foibles,

Our petty sins and faults—

Our big ones too.

And loves us without hesitation,

without reservation,

without measure.


Authentic prayer invites us to know ourselves

and rise up anyway,

speaking to God from the depths of our souls.


Oh God, be merciful to me.

A sinner, yes,

but so much more:

Beloved Child.

Redeemed Disciple,

Temple of the Living God.

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