‘All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.’ In a single sentence our greatest playwright summed up the essential character and vocation of human beings. We are destined to perform on the public stage and play many parts. Whether we are natural or reluctant players, there’s no escaping the repertory of roles we have to perform throughout our lives.
The Gospel accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus all acknowledge that we play roles. The drama of the Gospels refer on many occasions to ‘hypocrites’, which literally means actors, but the word is used in the Gospels to refer to people who act falsely because they want to be seen to be good and virtuous in the eyes of others, and are not concerned or content to be good and virtuous for its own sake. For example, giving, praying and fasting, three practices of piety were turned by these hypocrites into public performances, so that they could be seen and praised by other people. These performers were intent on self-advertising, ‘blowing their own trumpet’, so as to extract every ounce of sympathy and praise from their audience.
The figures in the Gospel were called hypocrites because they were more concerned about how they were perceived by other people than how they were seen by God; more concerned about winning public adulation for their performance than by cultivating their own virtue behind closed doors. Jesus tells them that giving, praying and fasting are not to be flaunted before other people in order to elicit a favourable response.
Today in the secularized western world those who pursue churchgoing, fasting, almsgiving or other sacrificial activities are more likely to keep it to themselves than to risk ridicule. But that doesn’t negate the force of the Gospel warning. In fact, it liberates it from a narrow focus on a few religious observances. Broadened in scope, it challenges all activities which are driven simply by the need to secure respect and recognition; by the need to satisfy and secure the adulation of others; by playing our audience rather than finding our true selves.
March 2020 – Easter
If we have a front stage we also have a back stage to relate to. Our back stage is the secret, hidden, space where we learn, prepare and rehearse for our part on the front stage. It’s where we face and work with our anxieties, wounds, losses and uncertainties. When we don’t occupy our back- stage we risk acting out the expectations of others and suppressing our own, and when we don’t allow space to reckon with our anxieties and wounds, they are likely to leak out on our front stage.
Lent is the season the Church sets aside for us to spend an extended time at the back stage of our lives. It’s the environment in which, in the bleak, scarce, wilderness experience, we allow our illusions and pretences to be challenged. It’s the place when we decide to let ourselves be defined no longer by the allure of the front stage but by the struggle of the back stage, not from the outside but from within, not from the shallows but from the depths. Lent is the season not for gestures of self-denial that may feed our self-satisfaction but for abandoning ourselves in the self-sustaining love that God has for us. Then, as we emerge from Lent, may we too experience some echo of the experience of Jesus himself, as he returned to the public, front stage of his ministry, and hear the most important affirmation that we can and need to know: ‘You are my child; with you I am well pleased.’
With love and prayers