Most of the time I don’t walk next to Jesus.
I walk sideways the opposite direction, smile frozen in place so if he happened to look over, there I would be, right prayers right charitable giving right causes right theology. And when I think he isn’t watching I inch away. You’ll find me pressed into a corner of the big family room of the faith, probably with a drink and my idea of a superior opinion in hand, watching nervously to see if anyone is watching me, if I look as good at this as the next one of us as the next one of us as the one over there who actually reads the Bible more than once in a fiery moon in summer. I’m a hideaway in the habits of this faith.
I walk past him in cities: head down, headphones in, insulated against the cold and against the winter and against the possibility that this banner of believer calls you to something more than just Sunday morning. I walked past him once outside a Starbucks in DC and was so sure I had missed Jesus that I went back with coffee and a sandwich and he only took the coffee, we never really spoke, I left the sandwich on the edge of a slab of concrete. I turn up my collar against the wind and wonder what I did, signing up for a lifetime with a lover of souls and a freer of captives, because someone like that takes you to captives, to lost and hungry and bleeding souls, to hospitals and corners and back alleys.
In the Ash Wednesday service the Gospel is about the Pharisee and the tax collector, praying. I’m an acolyte, a torch bearer, and so I’m close to the Gospel when it’s read, the words loud and the incense sticky against my face. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” I tell God in my head at that exact moment that it is a good thing I’m not like the Pharisee – that I don’t talk to him like that, that I know the moral of this story.
Jesus doesn’t say anything but I know he heard me. It’s the silence of him as I hear my own prayer said back, still in the words of the Gospel. “that I am not like that tax collector…” That I am not like that Pharisee.
Jesus looks back at me in the final words, reads me quiet and certain and the condemnation seeps into my heart and the incense is still clinging to my robes: “Truly I tell you, whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Nothing is safe with Jesus, it turns out.
You can’t keep your life, the habits of your heart, the way you expect the world to read you like a book, to be what you need, to offer itself to you for your easy understanding. You can’t keep that superior opinion in the corner of the room and you can’t walk past the corner and you can’t, oh, how you can’t pretend to Jesus that you’re doing it right.
He who would save his life? What was it? Will lose it.
I forget that part.
It’s too quiet here, now, in the after of Ash Wednesday, we’re entering a bright sadness, as the Orthodox would say. It’s too quiet so I can hear myself, hear how little of what I think I am and what I think I know I am allowed to keep if I’m going to be someone who loves Jesus.
But this Lent, me, the Pharisee with the incense sticking to her robes and the old habits of her life sticking to her heart, I want to walk next to Jesus. I want the bright sadness before the Easter morning. I want Jesus. Whatever I must lose to find him.