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!.