Ash Wednesday is an ancient celebration with a curious history, and Lent itself has a past. We shouldn’t lose sight of the basic truth that it is a season of joy. Surprised?
2 Cor 5:20–6:2
What English-speakers call Lent, a period of spiritual preparation before Easter, can be traced back to the fourth century. It lasted 40 days, to match the time Jesus spent in preparation for his ministry. Some time later, 4 extra week days were added so that Sundays could be omitted. Fasting and abstaining on the Lord’s Day seemed too radical and, face it, just plain wrong. And so Lent began on Wednesday, rather than the following Sunday.
It was about this time, also, that the custom arose of sprinkling ashes on peoples’ heads or rubbing them on the forehead to signify penitence, despite Jesus’ injunction to the contrary that we have just heard repeated. A contradiction, you say? Jesus himself was a master of paradox and I suppose he would understand. But all such things — the violet trappings, the omission of the Gloria and the joyful alleluias during mass, the absence of flowers, are all meant to remind us of something far more important than sin and guilt. For the world has been redeemed. The reign of sin and death has been ended. Christ, crucified for our sins, has been raised for our justification. Sin has no more claim on us — unless we let it.
Still, it is not beside the point to note what Joel and Jesus preach. “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord your God. For God is gracious and merciful and relenting in punishment.” It is not only unnecessary, but wrongheaded to proclaim our repentance in public if we have not first committed ourselves to transforming our hearts.
Even more important is the point made in the First Preface for Lent, a subtle message that grounds the silent music of the days ahead: “each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed.” Wait for it.
In fact, the whole purpose of Lent is joy — the happy renewal of mind and heart in Christ — metanoia, spiritually changing our minds and hearts, not just our clothing or makeup. It means reorienting ourselves, especially by promoting justice and compassion for the oppressed, weary, poverty-stricken, and disheartened.
Then what are we to make of the instructions of Joel and Jonah and other prophets about fasting, weeping, and mourning? Like performing our good deeds, they caution us to lament secretly, lest people see what we’re up to and give us a round of applause. At least so says Jesus. And that’s worth thinking about. Public apologies and displays of virtue can be deceptive, as politicians and CEOs and famous athletes demonstrate — and the greatest danger lies in deceiving ourselves. The prophetic exception is public injustice, which calls out for public outcry — moments when most of us remain all too silent.
So as you come forward to get your forehead smeared with the ashes of last year’s palms, lift up your hearts, be joyful in the Lord, smile. Resolve to do your good deeds without notice, for we are beginning the season of metanoia. We are preparing our minds and hearts for the great feast of our redemption. And remember: it helps to look redeemed.
As measles spreads through the land and the politicians now weigh in (not a Christie jibe, really), it’s a very good thing Rand Paul gave up the practice of medicine. He was an ophthalmologist, however, not an epidemiologist. But he still sees more clearly than everyone else… except when it comes to vaccines. (Note to Rand Paul: a lot of kids fell out of trees and broke their arms after getting vaccinated, but that isn’t WHY they broke their arms.) At least Gov. Christie judiciously came down on both sides of the issue.
Listen to Grandma Clinton: GET YOUR KIDS VACCINATED.
If anyone has any lingering doubts that football is now the official American religion, please review the post-game events, especially the ceremonial procession of the Vince Lombardi trophy, which was adored and lovingly kissed and touched by the Patriots as it was carried reverently through the worshipful ranks. I haven’t seen such devotion since the relics of Saint Therese were brought to New York….
It has everything – vast gathering places, mobs of the faithful ready to sacrifice anything to attend major feast day celebrations, priests, high priests, acolytes (of both genders – at least), invocations, rubrics, holydays of obligation, canonizations, excommunications, saints and sinners, and scandals involving both major and minor clergy. There’s music and spectacle, official and unofficial historians, and commentators galore. And lots and lots of money. What’s not to love?