The Taser's Edge

Lenten Devotion 1.1

So what’s the deal with Ash Wednesday? (Yes, other than the fact that noseless people like the fellow to my left observe it.)  Today you may be wondering this very question.  Many of my kinfolk do.  Their problem and possibly yours:

Matthew 6:1, 16-18: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven…And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting…But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Interestingly enough, this is the prescribed Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday not just this year, but every year.  And today Dr. Warren Smith preached directly on Christians who respond to Ash Wednesday as either “hypocrites” (who really do want them ashes to show off their holier-than-thouness) or “cynics” (people like me and plenty of people I know who just don’t get how putting ashes on our heads jives with our practicing piety in secret).  His simple and fairly convincing procedure to figuring it out?  A mixture of exegesis and exploration of intent.  We aren’t wearing ashes because we are fasting, but because we are entering a season of repentance.  Wearing ashes isn’t supposed to mean we think ourselves holy, but that we see ourselves in need of repentance, in need of God.  And I think it’s good for most of us to be looked in the eye once a year and personally humbled: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (I realize that might be a bizarre sentiment to some, especially non-Christians, who read this blog, so ask.)

My problem, however: even if we are well-intentioned and mean the right thing by wearing the ashes, do non-Christians (and the many Christians who are not a particular kind of Christian) understand our intentions?  When Duke undergrads get on the bus, and there are a handful of people scattered throughout the bus with ashes on their heads, what does it mean to those undergrads?  Several may know that Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, which is a season leading up to Easter.  Others know Ash Wednesday as the day after Mardi Gras.  Still others know that some and not other Christians get ashes on their head once a year for some reason.  Who knows why?  Christians do a lot of things, after all.

But I am a Christian, a theologically well-educated one, one who cares about the historic forms of Christian worship and who belongs to a liturgical denomination and local church, and I am still conflicted about what the imposition of ashes communicates.  I am convinced that the ashes do plenty of communicating to non-Christians, and I cannot believe that the intended message of the ashes is actually being communicated to anyone outside of a very small group within the Christian community, most of whom already also wearing ashes on their foreheads.  It doesn’t matter if Eucharist and baptism don’t make sense outside the church, because they happen in the context of Christian worship.  Ash Wednesday goes straight out into the public sphere.

Now I say all this, but I am really looking forward to my first observed Lent this year (although I don’t know if I can call it observed since I didn’t get ashed today).

And there is some solace for me: the Orthodox don’t do Ash Wednesday, either (funny, in a decidedly non-haha way, considering that I quoted an Orthodox theologian in my last post, and yes, I know I’m not actually doing Orthodox Lent, either).  Then there’s also the good friend of mine, who really is a worship/liturgy nerd, told me that he doesn’t really get Ash Wednesday either, and that he thinks he might just go along with it.  If there are others of us out there, sit it out next year (lie like me, and claim you’re Orthodox, if you need a good defense) and for as long as it takes to figure out what your forehead is saying when you step out of the church building.  And if you’re a Christian who’s always been weirded out by Lent because Ash Wednesday is an offputting gateway, consider trying the rest of Lent first.  Really, you can.  I promise it still works.

To you and yours, have a Happy solemn Lent!.

4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Questions well put. Answers built right in, even if some are written between the lines..Your blog is wonderful to read, from an old mans chair..
Let’s try this thought..
Yupper a pretty good percentage of the “Ash wearers” don’t give it much thought (no wear near as much as you are), but me thinks you have nailed it with the moment of Humility feeling when the ashes are recieved.
As far as the “social statement” that naturally takes place in the aftermath of the reception…. Well, let’s consider the social statement of some of the other Duke undergrads on the bus, still making a fashion statement with the Mardi Gras Beads and consider the thoughts going through the heads of those of students living statements of other Religious Cultures and Worship practices when veiwing such a prideful statement.
If it is Humility we seek, go with the Ash. If pride is our fate, grab some beads and attend the bash…
Keep working with more than your frontal lobe, God speaks from deep within the mind…A process that seems to serve You Well.

Comment by Mike C

Thanks so much for the kind words and some more to think about, Mike. I really love your image of two competing messaging objects on the bus, between Mardi Gras beads (which make me think of their own competition with rosary beads, given your website) and Lenten ashes. That’s powerful, when I think of the two images/messages side by side. Or the possibility, which I am certain has happened at least once, of the two being on the same person at the same time. I might have to steal your idea as a future sermon illustration, (since I have to preach a Lenten homily to some pastors a couple weeks from Friday).

Comment by tasersedge

This is my first year observing Lent. I love that our hip, young church gets so into it (having a city-wide service–this only happens once a year as we regularly meet as “upper west side” “chelsea” “brooklyn” etc. with liturgy and stuff).

But, I still don’t understand Lent, or ashes really. I guess I don’t need to. I just need to do what I need to do. And this year it happens to be actually doing something for Lent. I think, though, that I would still be doing what I’m doing even if it were any other 40 days of the year. I think it just happened to coincide?

Comment by Emily

Do non-Christians understand our intentions? Does it matter? Having grown up in a pretty typical Baptist church in the Bible belt, I think I (and perhaps you, too?) have a tendency to associate any outward indication of what happened inside the four walls of the church building as necessarily being an attempt to evangelize/proselytize/advertise. But is that what the imposition of ashes is attempting?

When a Christian wears a shirt proclaiming “Jesus Saves,” does the non-Christian understand those intentions? Which comes across as more holier-than-thou, a significant percentage of the population wearing smudges on their foreheads once a year and otherwise mentioning nothing of their faith, or the sole individual in the workplace wearing some other outward expression of faith continually. And does the anti-Lent Christian ask the same hard question about hypocrisy/”piety before others” before deciding to wear/do something like that?

This is my first observed Lent as well (observed to the extent that one can while having consumed a large pile of slow cooked pork on Friday night), so understand that my observations are those of a rookie, though one who has given it no small amount of contemplation. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see Lent as perhaps the most innocuous of Christian practices. It is not something that is biblically prescribed, but certainly something that has a strong biblical foundation.

As I’ve been reading through Numbers lately, I can’t help but at least see some loose parallels between what Lent can be to the believer today and what the Nazirite vows were to Israelites of that time. Those taking the vow of the Nazirite were to let no razor come upon their heads, as opposed to Levites who were instructed to shave all their body. They were also subject to a number of other seemingly arbitrary laws and diet restrictions. So there you have an outward sign and a set of temporary regulations, all for the sake of consecration – connecting with what God was doing. Now I know this isn’t a direct parallel as obviously the Nazirite vows came directly from the mouth of God, but this at least helps me reconcile the apparent contradiction between wearing ashes and giving up X for a time and Christ’s command to practice piety in secret.

You are probably right that the ashes communicate something to non-Christians, I’m just not sure it’s something offensive or off-putting enough to merit not connecting with believers worldwide in a corporate act of humility and worship.

Comment by T Jarrett

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