By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 2/17/12 in The Madera Tribune
A U.S. tourist in Ireland marveled when he spotted familiar bottles of American beer behind the counter of a pub. “I see you have Bud Light over here now,” he commented.
“Yes,” said the bartender. “But we only drink it for Lent.”
The true tale was one of many swapped by visitors to the Chicago Tribune website three years ago. Another told of a university roommate who resolved to give up pizza for Lent. Normally his friends wouldn’t have been impressed, but when he abstained from the college staple from the first weekend of December through final exams later that month they took notice.
No one had the heart to direct him to a calendar.
I’m grateful someone did so to me. I realized Wednesday will mark the solemn day when Maderans of all walks of life will stretch out their hand to a classmate or co-worker and intone the traditional greeting: “You’ve got a smudge on your forehead.”
There are two common liturgical responses to this. The first emphasizes the self-effacing character of the Lenten season as the ash besmirched Christian offers a weak smile and replies, “Um… thanks.” The responsorial alternative, usually spoken rather than sung, explains about weeks of spiritual preparation before the holy day of Easter. This explanation is largely ceremonial as it does not prevent the same greeting from being offered the following year — or sometimes even later the same day.
Ash Wednesday is the ancient gateway for 40 days of renewed prayer, repentance, self-denial, and compassion for those in need. This time of Lent, a word that originally meant “spring,” alters the routines of Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, some Baptists and Mennonites, and others every year.
I’ve always been grateful for the fellowship and reminder to renew my commitment to God, which often involves examining my own life and working at refocusing my scattered attention. There has never been a year when I felt the effort was unnecessary.
The season of Lent draws its inspiration, in part, from the 40 days that Jesus spent alone in the desert after his baptism in the Jordan River by his older cousin John. There in the wilderness Jesus fasted and prayed. Afterwards he recalled scripture as he resisted the temptations of the demon Satan. Then Jesus began his public ministry.
One would hope that Christians imitate this retreat of Jesus into the wilds not only to better prepare themselves to withstand attractions to evil but also to ready themselves to minister to those around them.
Those in need, physically or spiritually, are never absent in any era. Jesus promised as much (Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7), and he asked us not only to serve but to love our neighbor as our self (Matthew 25:37-40; Mark 12:30-31).
“What a comfort is this way of love!” wrote the Carmelite nun Térèse Martin. “You may stumble on it, you may fail to match the grace given, but always love knows how to make the best of everything; whatever offends our Lord is burnt up in its fire, and nothing is left but a humble, absorbing peace deep down in the heart.”
So why do Christians begin such a time as Lent with ashes?
I am reminded of the poem “Spring and Fall” by Victorian poet and convert Rev. Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, that he wrote nine years before his own death. In it, he described the tears of a fictional girl at seeing the barren woods of the fall season.
“Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving? / Leaves, like the things of man, you / With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? / Ah! As the heart grows older / It will come to such sights colder / By and by, nor spare a sigh.”
Though no one had told her, he said, her heart had heard and her spirit had guessed the deeper meaning behind these empty trees. “It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.”
In naked branches and in ashes, we see foreshadowings of our own death. The illusion of our own immortality quivers, and if we are honest so do we.
In that moment, we can hide like a frightened child. We can chill our hearts to such thoughts. We can protest. We can cry. We can surrender to an inevitable doom.
Or we who are Christians can trust the embrace of the death-conquering God we claim to love and follow.