Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Happy Ash Wednesday?

Mardi Gras has become a national holiday over the years, stretching far beyond the boundaries of Louisiana. It brings a raucous, colorful, carnival atmosphere to break the grim drear of the winter months and foreshadow spring. You may have celebrated last night with a Hurricane at your local bar or even made it down to the epicenter New Orleans.

Meanwhile, Ash Wednesday has quietly fallen out of public consciousness. Historically, Fat Tuesday is fat because Ash Wednesday is lean. Louisiana's French Catholics indulged in excessive debauchery that they might have plenty to tell the priest about on Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and confession which kicks off the pre-Easter season of Lent.

At the Church of Our Savior in Virginia-Highlands (a Catholic-style Episcopal Church) last Sunday, Father John Bolton explained how this rhythm is reflected in the liturgy of the Sunday service. "The Bishop told us to make sure we say and sing all the 'Alleluias' we can this Sunday, as we won't say any more until Easter."

Thus, the slow monotony of the winter weeks is broken by a joyful celebration, followed by the solemn ascetic march through the stations of the cross, culminating in the triumph of the Resurrection at Easter.

Everyone loves a good party like Mardi Gras. And regardless of religious background, all can enjoy Easter's bright colors, spring weather, soaring music, and egg hunts. On the other hand, most would prefer to avoid the fasting, confessing, and sooty foreheads that Ash Wednesday offers.

But Mardi Gras and Easter are robbed of their true potential without the counterpoint of Lent. Mardi Gras may yield some juicy confessions, but without repentence, or turning, it only leads to destructive debauchery. And the Lenten reflection on the darkness of the world and our personal moral failings sets the stage for the triumph of life over death through gratuitous pardon and boundless mercy at Easter.

Our individual lives follow similar rhythms of highs and lows. And though we sensibly wish to avoid hardship and suffering, we all know deep down that these trials make life meaningful and its pleasures all the more pleasant.

When I look back over the rhythms of my own life, I can barely remember the easy and indulgent times that seem regrettably devoid of value. In contrast, the tough times are generally purged of their pain and appreciated as necessary catalysts for change.

So as I reflect on my moral failings this morning and feel the weakness of my needy body, I sense an uplift of opportunity in my incompleteness. My laundry list of shortcomings reminds me of the many ideals worth striving for and my hunger reminds me of how faithfully God has provided for my needs and then some.

So happy Ash Wednesday everybody. Here's to the imperfection of our lives and the solemnity and celebration which enrich them.


  1. Thanks for the Ash Wednesday Day message, Perceptions. One thing that I appreciate about Ash Wednesday up here in secularland is how much of a curiosity it is. Enough people go to the AM service and get the ash mark on their forehead that everyone sees at least a few people with the mark. It is something of a jolt to see overt religiosity around here, which is part of the reason why I like every Ash Wed--an Ash mark on the forehead is a primitive and unmissable profession of faith and piety. It is elemental and unique.

    Such signs can be rare around here, where the (laudable) celebration of all religions is sometimes interpreted as a principle that the Christian religion should just sort of take a back seat for a while. The ashen forward reminds me of Christianity's early roots--mysterious and uncommon.

  2. I visited St Thomas Cathedral here in DC with a Catholic buddy of mine on Ash Wednesday. Being a Baptist, I didn't participate in wearing ashes during the day, but I certainly enjoyed the priest's message and ceremony have been self-reflecting ever since. I agree with you that all of our life rhythms keep us interested, and this one is particularly interesting. As you say, "the Lenten reflection on the darkness of the world and our personal moral failings sets the stage for the triumph of life over death through gratuitous pardon and boundless mercy at Easter." So happy moral reflection season, and in hopes to becoming a better person, cheers to the celebration of imperfection!