“Everything burns.” — The Joker
For millions of Christians around the world, today is the advent of Lent (Ad-Lent, perhaps?), Ash Wednesday. Most of America recognizes this as the time of year when a whole crapload of fish and seafood items are placed on restaurant menus. Most of Wisconsin, as undeniably Catholic and Lutheran as it is, thinks of it as a 40-day-long Friday fish fry. (Nothing wrong with that, mind you. Being exiled from God’s Country, I miss me some Friday fish fry and potato pancakes that can only come from Milwaukee.)
The point of Lent is to give something up for the season, which stretches through the paschal week and culminates with Resurrection Sunday. (And you wonder why Easter hams are de rigueur.) The ash in Ash Wednesday comes straight from the scriptural accounts of mourning and repentance with [sackcloth and] ashes. Presumably, when everything burns, all that is left is to mourn. The Lent practitioner ‘burns’ something in a sign of devotion and recommitment to God. This, like all rite, is often empty posturing, as giving up red meat means about as much in terms of soteriological efficacy as offering to settle a lawsuit rather than going to court.
At that point, the only thing one gets out of Ash Wednesday is a dirty forehead.
Giving up something needs not be a strictly religious practice, though. If we intend to lose weight or clean up our arteries, we will change our diet. There are physiological benefits to fasting, detoxing, rebooting. Give up television for a few weeks and see what happens. Log off facebook. Go without your cell phone. Skip a few Sunday services. When you revisit a regular diet, regularly scheduled programming, the stalker feed or turn your phone back on, go back to church, none of it is the same. Old patterns lose their flavor, lest we struggle with addiction; make no mistake, ours is a culture fraught with addiction. Addicted to addiction, perhaps. And yes, church and church stuff can be and often is deleterious to authentic religious experience.
Perhaps it’s time to make some ashes.
Being raised in a fundamentalist environment, where we were tacitly instructed to treat those ‘dead, mainline denominations’ with unhealthy skepticism, Lent was always just a weird time when those Catholics didn’t eat beef, and some of them didn’t even drink (that, typically, didn’t last very long in a part of the world where cheap beer flows like water from a bubbler.) There was often no perceptible change in everyday life in Central Wisconsin. So, what if we set fire to that which we hold so dear? Or, more to the point, that which holds us hostage?
In Tanakh, in periods of mourning, suffering or repentance, a prophet, king or grieving party would trade out their typical garb for sackcloth and put ashes on their heads. This was an outward sign of an inward state of being; the same logic behind water baptism or Eucharist/communion. Ashes were the indicator that something had happened to the suffering.
Ashes are a sign of the messy collision between the past and present. When a house burns, there is seldom anything left. When a forest burns, the lush of trees and other plant life is replaced by a barren, charred landscape. When a body is cremated, it doesn’t get a coffin, but a jar. A campfire which provided light and warmth in the morning is nothing but smoldering embers. Wearing those ashes is a sign of stasis; repentance is regret, mourning is the refusal to let go of the past. For Ash Wednesday’s earnest participants, the ashes are a day’s stasis in mourning the selfishness of past deeds.
We aren’t meant to live in a perpetual Ash Wednesday. And, those who have been stricken with a lifetime of fundamentalist revival services are not usually cognizant of the fact that repeated goings to the altar are no different from going to the apses, taking the host and having ashes put on their heads. That is, what really matters happens after.
It is perfectly acceptable to mourn and grieve, as it is right to reflect in a penitent mode. We should, though, set fire to that which causes us to obsess or steers us from what should be our ultimate concern, look back, and suffer. And, then, move ahead, knowing that what we’ve laid to waste is ash, and a lot of what we laid was straw and not silver. And we are not, at least, not yet.
Ashes then, are not the end, but the beginning. Repentance is typically a Christian term with a religious connotation, but there are a lot of things we do which we could do without, regardless of religious predilection or the lack thereof. Thus, the call to give something up to strive to be something better is not necessarily a religious one.
Or perhaps the opposite is true: we are an inherently religious people, as religion is the pursuit of one’s ultimate concern. There is nothing more ubiquitous to the human experience than ultimate concern. There is also nothing exclusive about selflessness, compassion, kindness and mercy. We all need it, be it from God or from one another. If I may be completely honest, I’ve found more of these qualities away from the ecclesiastical sphere of influence than I ever did as a part of it. Perhaps the Western church, too, could stand to burn. Those would be ashes worth wearing.
So, on this first day of Lent, let’s be reminded of the futility of material pursuits, the emptiness of self-sating pleasure and the vanity of our ambitions. Let us, instead, mourn the life we liked, so that we may live never ceasing to love.