Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent for Christians. I’m not a scholar of the Bible or a Christian theologian or anything else that would give me any kind of expertise on the subject of Lent, but it has a dawning fascination for me. "Dawning" because I’ve observed it somewhat sporadically over the course of my life, but only in the past couple of years has it become meaningful to me.
I grew up in a Methodist church where Lent was observed, but my memories of it are kid memories. Lent meant giving something up, usually something I loved to do or loved to eat, all for no apparent reason. I don’t blame the Methodists that I couldn’t understand giving something up for Lent. My inability to see some kind of deeper meaning had 100 percent to do with the fact that I was a kid. Let’s face it, kids are selfish. Even good kids. To, for example, give up cookies for Lent is plain bad news, and there’s simply no understanding anything beyond an instant and prolonged dearth of cookies. (Side note, but I wonder if Lent has anything to do with why young people are leaving the Church en masse. "Oh yeah, Lent. No cookies for over a month. Forget that s@$#.")
I went and got ashes last Wednesday, which is only the second year in a row that I’ve independently sought ashes. To be honest, I can’t remember if the Methodist church where I grew up did an Ash Wednesday service. Probably, I’d guess, but I don’t remember going. These days, most churches that observe Lent have some kind of noonish service so you can head over on your lunch break, get ashes and then head back to the office. Where everybody in your office who is either Pentecostal or atheist will go, "Hey, you got some gunk on your forehead."
If you’re not familiar, when the priest applies the ashes to your forehead, he says something like, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." The second part is "Repent and believe in the Gospel," but I’ve heard that my entire life—and it’s not that its lost its meaning per se, it’s just that those words have become part of the thrum of American, especially Southern, culture. But to be told to remember that I am dust and to dust I shall one day return strikes a deep and resonant chord, one with which I’m not very comfortable. It's not every day you get a reminder of your upcoming death.
My instinctual response: Who is it that has the brass balls to remind me where I came from and where I’m going? That I was born, that I will die and that, in between, not much I say or do will ultimately mean anything? Those words, spoken once a year, have the power, the moment the priest pronounces them, to put me on full defensive, to lock down in my brain the memory of everything I’ve done good with my life so far. Got a degree. Got an advanced degree. Got a job. Kept it. Got married. Not the worst husband, at that. Had kids. Not the worst father, either.
My more considered response, as I sit at my desk at the office with ashes on my forehead, is what if it’s true? No priest, or anybody else for that matter, would remind me to remember I’m made of dust and that I’m going back to dust if anything I did between birth and death were great enough to catapult me beyond mortality. Ergo, the only actions with any actual purpose are getting born and dying.
Who says that? From dust you came and to dust you’ll return. It’s not even usual in church. Just during Lent and funerals, that I’m aware of. And, in fact, the gasoline that powers me through most days is the notion that I can do anything I set my mind to. And when I do accomplish the thing upon which I've set my mind, I assume it matters only because I did it. That's pretty egocentric, actually.
What fascinates me about Lent is the pause it puts on an otherwise-rose-smellin’ tap dance through life. Lent is a season of bad news in the midst of a religion steeped in the Good News. Maybe that’s what I find so fascinating. If you have an altar call in church every single Sunday, there’s no time to comprehend exactly why you might need to get up and walk your ass down the aisle.
After Methodism, I spent many years going to a contemporary, nondenominational, evangelical, quasi-megachurch. Lent was mentioned. I’m not sure it was practiced. Each time the dark heart of man came up, whether in a sermon or a reading or a small group study, it was quickly followed by some mention of the Good News. Which, for Christians, the end of Lent is the beginning of Good News. But I’m finding now that a truncated Lent, as I experienced it in that church, led to truncated Good News. Neither meant all that they could mean. It seems clear to me now that if the Good News is supposed to carry the monumental weight that Christians believe it does, it follows that the bad news deserves its due as well.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, "Animal Heart," is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.