A few days ago, many Christians observed Ash Wednesday service. It’s a pivotal day between Christmas and Easter when Christians get serious with their self examination. The clergyperson uses ashes mixed with oil and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the participant, accompanied by the words, “From dust you came. To dust you will return.”
It’s a time when people are supposed to recognize and repent of their sins. It’s also a time to reflect on their mortality. Immediately following Ash Wednesday is the forty day period called Lent where people prepare themselves for the Easter season by fasting and reflection. Of course, you shouldn’t really go without eating for that long so people decide to give up specific things like chocolate, caffeine, or Facebook.
When I was a minister, I gave it a light touch and I told everyone I was giving up kumquats and pilates for Lent.
I’m no psychologist but it always seemed to me that periods of extreme self denial did not inspire real improvement. Addicts will often deny themselves for short intervals just to prove to themselves that they’re in control, and then they go right back to their destructive behavior. It was also my experience that Christians already focused on their sins and inadequacies all the time and I questioned whether it was necessary to make it an official occasion.
Over time, people invented another occasion just before Ash Wednesday where they have big parties or flings of some sort. In New Orleans they have Mardi Gras where people gather for drinking and dancing, and some of the women even flash their boobs to the crowds. Other people all over the world celebrate what they call Fat Tuesday and have their own party time. Some people keep it pretty tame and so they have a tradition of eating a big ole plate of pancakes on that Tuesday (no kidding).
So there you have it. Go out and party big time. Then feel really really bad about it. Repeat the process yearly. Mark your calendar.
I don’t participate anymore although I recognize that people really do have their cycles that lead from celebration to grief to recovery and then hopefully to celebration again. I just don’t think it’s that orderly a process and I don’t think it should be.
Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day this year. I’m not really sure how people blended their ashes with hearts and flowers. I was substitute teaching at a high school and it was a festive day where girls had styled their hair and wore fancy red dresses and high heels. They carried cards, candy, flowers, balloons, and giant stuffed animals that hopeful boys had bestowed upon them. I enjoyed it.
But the next day was quite different. The laughter and chatter from the day before was gone and the kids trudged to their classes in silence. The classes were quiet, too. I had no trouble keeping order and I found I didn’t care too much for the change.
The afternoon before–on Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday, a young man had gone into a school downstate from us and used an assault weapon to kill seventeen students and teachers, wounding many more. Videos showed us bodies and we heard gunfire and screams. There were armed police, flashing lights, and crying parents….
We have entered a season of shock and mourning where we’re forced to consider the fact that life really is short (much too short for some). We really need to think about the evil we inflict on each other and consider ways to stop it.
I wish we could do more with this time than blame each other, defend our political positions, and ultimately accomplish nothing. There’s no way to avoid grief and unhappiness so we might as well put it to use and do the work that will bring us to a better state of existence.
And if we really need a set a calendar to begin the process, let’s start with today.