Day 1 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010
Walking past the venerable St. Stephens Church on my way to the Subway, I noticed the usual clutch of elderly parishioners gingerly descended the stairs, clinging to the railing, but with dusty patches on their foreheads.
Every morning, passing the circa-1854 edifice on my way to work, seeing almost the same little group of people leaving morning Mass at the same time, I’d never noticed the smudges before.
Down at the 28th Street Subway station platform, other people waited for the train, the same smudges on their foreheads; on the train, more smudges. Down in the Financial District, still more smudges. I got to work, and co-workers were arriving with smudges, too.
New York City, of course, is a city of Catholics. Jews, yes, and Greek Orthodox, with a considerable Episcopalian presence; a few Baptists, and Korean Presbyterians thrown in for good measure, with a quiet Buddhist community in the city’s multiple Chinatowns. These days, Islam is the new kid on the block, but Catholicism has been Gotham’s most widely-practiced religion for almost two centuries, first brought over by Europeans and sustained today by Hispanics, Philippinos, and a few still-vibrant Italian and Irish neighborhoods tucked among the boroughs.
But as a recent transplant from Baptist Texas, the smudges on foreheads baffled me. It wasn’t until a couple of people started complaining about the long line at the little chapel down by the Staten Island Ferry that I learned the reason: Ash Wednesday!
Isn't Mardi Gras Redundant?
Ash Wednesday, today, marks the beginning of Lent, which runs through Saturday, April 3. Most people know that Lent is what follows Mardi Gras down in New Orleans, and most of us also know the kind of hedonism and carnality that just wrapped up down there. I won’t get into that mess except to wonder – like I do during every Mardi Gras – what makes the days leading up to Lent such an acceptable time for people to participate in and celebrate debauchery and fornication that would be considered inappropriate during other parts of the year. I know WHY people do it – sin usually is pretty fun at the time – I just don’t understand how they can justify it, especially those that claim there’s a religious significance to it. But like I said, that’s as far as I’m going on that tangent today.
Yes, the decadence of Mardi Gras serves to mark the contrast from celebration to somberness, as during Lent, people give up something to help them observe the time leading up to the crucifixion of Christ. You don’t have to be Catholic to give up something for Lent. In fact, it can be a good exercise in restraint and piety, as long as we don’t objectify it and expect it to have curative or salvific powers. Some people start off in the shallow end, cutting chocolate from their diet, while others try to wean themselves from TV, the news, or some other habit. Very few of us actually try to tackle an overpowering sin issue or some other vice with which we struggle daily. I know I don’t. I’ve never even tried to give up chocolate.
Die to Self
Back in the mists of time, my good friend Clyde Eure led a single adults Sunday School class at our “seeker” church while he attended seminary. Our class had a good-sized group of core participants, plus we normally hosted a number of visitors on any given Sunday. Being in a “seeker” church, and a singles class, we were expected to walk a tricky line between social fluff and solid Bible teaching. In practice, we did the Bible teaching much better than the social fluff (although some of Andrea's parties were legendary).
One Sunday, Clyde started the class with an uncharacteristically long, rambling soliloquy about sacrifice and suffering. Clyde has a burden for teaching the Gospel with simplicity and starkness – no adornments of gratuitous humor, anecdotes, and illustrations; not quite on par with the "seeker" teacher model, but that day was stark, even for Clyde.
He drew an outline on the whiteboard, with arrows, underlines, and circles, taking up almost all of the space. After what seemed like ages, although he kept us all spellbound with his conviction and sincerity, Clyde concluded with a dramatic challenge he’d already spent the time diagramming: die to self. In everything we do, give ourselves over to the leading and purposes of Christ. For His glory, not ours. Period.
Then he (Jesus) said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it…” Luke 9:23-24
We all sat there in silence. The room, full of people, both regulars and visitors, quiet and still.
Finally, doing what I do so well, I piped up inappropriately, “well, thank you for coming today, visitors. I hope we'll see you again”! And the whole class chuckled awkwardly in thinly-veiled relief.
Ever since then, at our infrequent “reunions”, former class members sometimes dredge up that “die to self’ story. We know what Clyde was teaching, and we know how far we continue to fall from that metaphoric standard. Maybe we think there's some sort of delay clause, or maybe since everyone we know is balking, it makes our own inaction comfortable. And what if we actually put to death our own desires and dreams for what Christ may be wanting us to do and be? Do we really want what Christ wants? Maybe we know what we’re supposed to do, but still we hesitate, almost like kids on the banks of a river someplace, daring somebody to be the first to jump in and tell us if the water’s fine or not.
Maybe this season of Lent, some of you could join me in jumping into the river, whether we think the water is fine or not. I don’t know that I’ll necessarily commit to giving up a habit or comfort food, because dying to self means giving up something more than a pleasure I plan on resuming after Easter.
Smudges on foreheads represent the Genesis 1:13 reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will return. The ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from the ashes of palm fronds burned after the previous year’s Palm Sunday services. Ashes from the burned palms are crushed into soot, signifying death and repentance. Thus, Ash Wednesday provides a liturgical symbolism of dying to self.
But while the message behind Ash Wednesday carries somber significance, denying ourselves and taking up our cross – the wordy version of “die to self” – isn’t just a one-Wednesday-a-year process, is it? It’s not even a Lenten process, during which we prepare ourselves to observe Christ’s death but also His glorious resurrection.
Indeed, Christ Himself acknowledges that death to self represents a daily process of confession, commitment, and expectancy. Paul said he died daily. Some people may consider this a dour interpretation of the sanctification process, because our culture exalts self-gratification. We in faith communities still try to pack as much fun as we think we can into our lives, but this pesky “death to self” won’t be denied.
If and when you see people today with the sign of the cross smudged in ash across their foreheads, or even if you participate in this observance yourself, let’s commit to making this more than a one-day exercise.
Dying to self is a life-long process. But isn’t today as good a day as any to start?