Death to Shame: Lenten Reflections

I sometimes think that shame, mere awkward, senseless shame, does as much towards preventing good acts and straightforward happiness as any of our vices can do.
— C.S. Lewis

I stopped wearing makeup for Lent. I quickly realized that I had to also give up apologizing to others around me for not wearing makeup, something I didn’t realize I did, as if to reiterate to everyone else that I don’t feel comfortable in my own skin.

First, I would be remiss to not mention the fact that the entire idea of my not wearing makeup for Lent came from Annie Downs and her courage from last years’ lent. She wrote about her experience on her blog, and when the time came to think through what would really be edifying and challenging, her thoughts were what came to mind.

I knew it would be difficult because it seemed such an integral part of me. So ingrained in me was the culturally appropriate repenting that came with being caught without my second face on, even in places like hot yoga (why would I wear it there anyways?) or the grocery store. I truly did enjoy the extra amounts of sleep it blessed me with, making it easy to not be so consumed with my appearance when rest became the reward. What I didn’t realize after scrubbing my face clean the first night, leaving my vibrant colors of tan, blush, orange, and black on a washcloth, was that in a way, I was about to truly see what was left beneath, the many things I hid and concealed with control.

Although I don’t think we should all toss our mascara out the window, what was revealed to me was how much I had already justified the necessity of makeup in my life, making it out to seem less of an idol and more stewardship of the face that God gave me. The reality was that without the covering and contouring, I felt insignificant, not good enough, not of worth — which should have been a red flag that this had more of a deep grip on my identity than I had first considered. Ironically enough, the comments that most people would have thought helpful, mainly the “you are naturally beautiful” ones, were oddly disorienting, and not because I disagreed so vehemently, but because that was exactly what I didn’t want to place my hope in.

It was no coincidence that around the same time as Lent, I was deep in a season of seeking and also mourning, lamenting a loss of what felt like what was supposed to be, and looking at what felt like the death of a dream in my hands. Similarly, I tried desperately to control and simultaneously cover, hiding the shame that I felt at having to say to friends and family, “no, I didn’t get the job. No, I don’t have any opportunities that have shown themselves. No, nothing new.” I had a bright and shiny Masters degree, and yet, it couldn’t cover over the absolute failure I felt I was with nothing good to show for it but the piece of paper itself. Even not going back on my lenten commitment was going to hopefully become the act that proves my worth, my disciplined nature, my spiritual maturity; if I didn’t have makeup to help with my appearance, I’d find another way.

Shame had found a way to grip every area of life, threatening to steal any glimmer of joy, any ounce of contentment, any hope in Christ.

I had made it a goal to read all of Fleming Rutledge’s book, The Crucifixion, during this liturgical season as well, which I can truthfully share, I have not yet finished. Right near the very beginning of her book, she touches on the severity of the Cross, the mode of death being one of the most degrading and shameful things that the Romans could have chosen to do. The Cross would have been one of the most odd things to make as the primary symbol of a new movement, and with myself being so far removed from that world and context, tattooing the symbol on my body felt entirely too normal rather than the scandal it would have been then. When I think of shame, my first thought is not the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, moreso seeing that event with my protestant eyes the goodness of the exodus and sacrifice on that day.

The heart of the Christian message, which Paul described as “the word of the cross,” ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the ideas of God held by educated people… To believe that the one pre-existent son of the one true God, the mediator of creation and the redeemer of the world had appeared in very recent times in out-of-the-way Galilee as a member of the obscure people of the Jews, and even worse, had died the death of a common criminal on the cross, could only be regarded as a sign of madness. The real gods of Greece and Rome could be distinguished from mortal men by the very fact that they were immortal — they had absolutely nothing in common with the cross as a sign of shame.
— Martin Hengel, Crucifixion

I think of all of the gods that I bow down to, not only the foundation that promises to cover my uneven skin tone and blemishes, but all that promise to bring about polished benefit after benefit, but in the meantime build a wall that creates a giant chasm between myself and reality. The true beauty is this: that all of the copious amount of shame that I feel on a regular basis was put to death by Jesus who “above all others had done nothing to merit [death]” on the tree. Yet, I build my case daily as to why maybe I was good enough for Christ to have died for, wearing my own dress-up clothes instead of His robes of righteousness.

The part I am most grieved about is that as people of the Cross and Resurrection, Easter only two days ago, is how quickly I throw off the glories of the paradoxical Kingdom of Christ in exchange for my forever-stained face washcloths, literally. I regularly choose shame and hiding over the grace that flows abundantly from His veins. I forget the blessed bes, amnesia binding me to a world that shouts a different message as I put the chains back on my hands.

Where I take heart, when my heart so quickly condemns me, is that God is greater than my heart, and although it is finished, the work in me is not yet complete. Thank God. I didn’t up and quit makeup after these days, but I see with more clarity, yet still dimly, the stripping and tearing down of walls within this aching body of mine that is begging with holy fervor to simply rest in the work that is done.

Within all of us is a burning awareness that something is not right, and that the solution is outside of us. We all need a covering, we all need to be washed, we all need a Savior. He has come, and is coming again. With Him I am found.