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Ash Wednesday Thoughts

Posted in Personal Essays on February 22nd, 2012

If you follow me or my husband on twitter, you might have noticed that we were in Las Vegas for the long weekend. Today was our first day back in civilization. Waking up I felt a little bit jet lagged, but I survived.

I dozed on the train, but walking out into the sunlight this morning in Manhattan I immediately was confronted with Catholics who were observing Ash Wednesday. It usually reminds me of when Rodney Dangerfield joke that every New Year’s he resolves not to ask his Catholic friends at the beginning of Lent, “Hey what’s that schmutz on your forehead?” Others on twitter were having similar fun.

Sometime in the early to mid nineties I noticed – in the NY metro area anyway – that Catholic priests stopped just gently pushing their thumbs into peoples foreheads to distribute ashes, and started making crosses. I am not sure if this was to add to emphasize that this was a Christian ritual, to make it more aesthetically pleasing or for some other reason, but every year I catch myself admiring people with perfectly symmetrical crosses on their faces.

It brings me back to when I was a very observant Catholic in college. Our campus chaplain would give the same sermon every year on Ash Wednesday called “Gettin’ Ashes.” He would print it in the bulletin, which I wish was still available online. But the heart of it was that receiving ashes was an outward symbol of an inner desire to change – the custom came from a time when people covered themselves in ashes to mourn but also to atone for wrongdoing. He said that we should not receive them if we did not intend to focus on spiritual growth throughout Lent. And then when the service was almost over, he would harken back to the Bible reading we had just heard,

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.

So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.

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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 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.

And he would tell us to wipe the ashes from our foreheads before we left the chapel, wiping the ashes from his own forehead. Usually people would gasp at this point and he would say “I know what your grandmother told you, she had good intentions. But ashes are not a badge, they aren’t a fashion statement. They represent what is inside you.” Then before the closing prayer – he would advise us that Lent is not a self improvement project, we shouldn’t give up sweets so we would look great on the beach during spring break. He only advised giving up smoking (for good) and doing more volunteer work. Then he would tell us that if any of us were working too hard and not getting out at all we should go to a concert by our university’s music department, consider that our ability to appreciate it was a holy gift, and that this would be a great way to observe Lent as well. Usually a few students would sneak out without wiping their ashes off, totally confused and visibly shaken. I wish I would have asked them what they were thinking, but it was never any one of my friends so I never did.

This sermon, which I heard four times in four years was extremely impactful in my decision to leave the church – I stopped observing Lent because after a while, I felt it didn’t help me much spiritually. Why should I receive ashes if I didn’t feel like making the 5 week commitment to be more pious? I experimented a few times with fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday – combing my hair, washing my face and taking Advil for my fierce headache as advised in the Bible. But it didn’t make me feel close to God. It made me exhausted and grumpy.

This all came rushing back to me not this morning, but this past week, when meeting a (atheist) friend and her (Catholic) boyfriend for a meal, she asked him what he would be giving up for Lent. He told her and then she asked me what I would be giving up. We had spoken previously about my conversion to Unitarian Universalism and I told her and her beau much of what I wrote here. I do remember as a teenager sometimes spending Lent giving something up, praying more, going to church every Sunday and feeling so special on Easter Sunday. I still appreciate the joy of Easter as a UU – on a different level. I am grateful for all of the love in my life and the opportunities I have had for forgiveness, and appreciate the coming of spring. If I go to Mass with my family (which I have the past few years on Easter as we usually visit family out of town) I like seeing the children in their bright pastel outfits, excited about their chocolates from the Easter Bunny, and my Aunt’s priest usually gives a Homily I don’t find entirely objectionable. Then we do something fun in their town and have a wonderful meal as a family.

But Easter does not have the same anticipation it did when I observed Lent. I have often thought about how to bring it back – a way I could “do Lent” as a UU that would feel fulfilling and authentic. I tried one year giving $1 to all of the homeless people who asked me for money during Lent. But I have since redirected my giving elsewhere. I’ve searched the internet and read a few other UU blogs about this topic, but like this post, they offer more questions than answers. I suppose that’s a start.

3 Responses to “Ash Wednesday Thoughts”

  1. Steve Bowen Says:

    It’s interesting isn’t it, the pull of tradition on our lives? I always feel a little cheated if I don’t have pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, even though the religious significance is zero for me, and Lent always was an excuse for an alcohol free time (which I now do in January, with equally religious associations).

  2. MissCherryPi Says:

    Steve – perhaps I have replaced Lent with my interest in running. I’ve started going alcohol and caffeine free in the week leading up to a race, because it supposedly helps you hydrate and improves speed and endurance. I’m not very fast though, and usually my change in habit just results in people thinking I am pregnant!

  3. Sheri Says:

    I think about that sermon a lot, and especially every Ash Wednesday. It’s one of the things I remember most about Newman house. I think it really speaks to how I feel about religion, and where so many religions/religious people have gone wrong. Piety has turned into a source of pride, and a badge of honor, and those are the exact things it shouldn’t be. It’s particularly irksome lately with all the news coverage of Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Pride and arrogance are terrible qualities, especially when found in a group of people who preach the exact opposite. It makes me remember how different Newman house was, and how much I wish I could find another church that practices what it preaches.

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