All eyes were on Washington this week, when President Barack Obama spoke before Congress, mainly about the economy.
Surely it was a coincidence that his speech fell on Mardi Gras. I doubt the president scheduled the event with the Christian calendar in mind. Even so, the timing seems appropriate.
Our collective financial Mardi Gras is over. Now it’s time for some discipline. Figuratively speaking, the nation has entered a kind of secular Lenten season.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Now and then we need to be reminded that it’s not healthy to always get what we want, when we want it. Grown-ups understand the joys of delayed gratification.
The actual Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” is the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of that 40-day season of fasting known as Lent. Mardi Gras originated as a practical ritual of cleaning out cupboards before fasting began but, human nature being what it is, the day evolved into an excuse for a blow-out party. People are funny that way.
Ash Wednesday was established 15 centuries ago by Pope Gregory the Great. As repentant believers entered the cathedral, he would mark their foreheads with ashes and remind them of the biblical symbol of repentance, sackcloth and ashes, and of their mortality, quoting the book of Genesis: “You are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Irony is at work here. While Christians have their foreheads ritually smeared with soot, they might recall these words from Jesus himself: “When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. … But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:16-18).
That’s why many Christians refuse to observe Ash Wednesday.
Someone must know a good explanation for a church practice that apparently flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching. I heard one minister explain it by saying the act is itself a reminder to Christians that they are imperfect even when they try to obey Christ. We’re laughing at ourselves, he said.
As with many other practices, not all Christians observe Lent or do so in the same way. It’s more common among the mainline denominations, such as the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches. But it’s an ancient Christian tradition, dating back at least to the second century.
Specific practices have changed over the centuries, but the purpose has remained constant: self-examination and repentance for sins, expressed by self-denial and other disciplines. It leads to Easter, so Lent also carries a strong sense of preparation and anticipation. (Lent began this week in the Western church calendar; the Eastern Orthodox season starts next week.)
The name, by the way, is derived from the same word as “lengthen” – that is, Lent comes when the days are getting longer. (Now there’s a good idea. If people want to change their lives, they probably stand a better chance when days grow brighter and warmer than in the depressing dead of winter, on New Year’s Day.)
The 40-day period recalls the length of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, but the number is associated with other dramatic (and traumatic) biblical events, such as the 40 days and nights of rain during Noah’s flood and 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness.
But Lent is not about punishment. It’s about discipline, about the shaping of souls. It is about facing up to the ways we’ve gone off track and doing what we can to recover what we’ve lost or repair what we’ve damaged. It’s about reflecting on what is really important and lasting.
In a word, observing Lent is about turning and returning to God.
And it’s about anticipation, knowing that self-discipline and sacrifice today can make tomorrow that much sweeter. Again, the joys of delayed gratification. Lent leads to Easter.
(Johnson City, Tenn., Press, 28 Feb 2009)