Lent, among the denominations that observe it, is intended as a time of intense reflection.Beginning on Ash Wednesday the fact of one’s own mortality becomes a foremost consideration as the faithful are reminded that they will die.It has always struck me as paradoxical that St. Patrick’s Day always falls in Lent.Those who abide by the liturgical calendar readily acknowledge that Lent is a punctuated season; saints’ days and feasts can still occur, temporarily disrupting the heavy contemplation.While at Nashotah House we never celebrated St. Patrick beyond a brief mention during a collect of the seventeenth.His day, rich in Celtic mythology, it seems, was inappropriate to the mandated gloom so highly valued by the soul-sick.Having some Irish ancestry, I always felt a little slighted by this aloofness regarding a saint most people can actually name.
College campuses, I later learned, tend to schedule their spring breaks to include Saint Patty’s Day because of the damage drunken students may exact.The stereotypical besotted Irish have become an excuse for excess during Lent, although, I suspect the forty days have little to do with it.A saint becomes a justification for sin, it seems.And Lent continues the morning after.There’ll always be Lent.The tray holding the ashes of last year’s palm branches is never empty.Two once religious observations clash in mid-March of each year.During a brief spell the historically oppressed Irish are celebrities for a day.Such are the vicissitudes of liturgical calendar clearing.
Today many people celebrate a saint they wouldn’t otherwise recognize.One that mythically drove the snakes from the Emerald Isle, and who perhaps hid a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.A holy man who has made it possible for anyone to be Irish for a day.Leprechauns and clovers are in fashion as the ironic luck of the Irish closes down major thoroughfares for parades in the midst of ashes and dust.Outside there may be snow or budding trees.Perhaps both at once.There’s a richness to these conflicting symbols that belies the commemoration of a missionary with alcohol.The day is part of the complex of equinox holidays, whether intentional or not.The green man of yore begins to awaken as light starts to outstrip darkness for half a year.We’ve had enough of dusk.Anticipate the light.The rules state that Lent will still be here tomorrow.But the light is beginning to grow.
Surely it’s appropriate that President’s Day falls in Lent this year. We as a nation, if we are wise, will repent of the horror we’ve elected upon ourselves. Those ashes on our foreheads remind us that sins come on a national scale as well as an individual. Any nation touting supremacy is in need of Lent, even if it’s founder’s day. Especially if it’s founder’s day. It’s difficult to believe that either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln would’ve truly thought the United States better than other nations. Having a secure and free place to live wasn’t an exercise in supremacy, but in the belief that people should be able to govern themselves. An Easter, if you will, of beliefs.
Symbolism is a major part of any religious holiday. The eggs, rabbits, and butterflies of Easter all represent something just as the burnt palms from last year’s Palm Sunday do. George Washington never chopped down the cherry tree—that was a story made up many years later. It was, however, a symbol to represent a truth. To represent a president who couldn’t bring himself to lie. The fact-checking statistics show that the current incumbent of Washington’s chair lies over five times a day. Listen closely here, for this is symbolism—yes, he did chop down the cherry tree. Where do you think those ashes on your forehead have come from?
An administration where supremacy is daily in the news is surely a sign of trouble. This President’s Day a national S.O.S. goes out, but to whom can supremacists call for help? They are already the greatest in their own minds. Supremacy was the hubris of Rome that eventually ensured its fall. The belief that the Roman male was the most supreme human template possible—far above women, slaves, and foreigners—was held until the day the Vandals and Visigoths came to the door. Preoccupied with its own greatness, it was an empire unable to see the symbolism clearly on display all around it. By that point it had become a “Christian nation”—a state with God’s own blessing on its white males and their entitlements. The insanity borne of excessive pride was no stranger to the seat of the emperor. Less than fourteen-hundred years later a new government would form. It’s leader so full of integrity and dignity that the common person believed he couldn’t cut down a cherry tree without telling the truth. And this year his birthday falls in Lent.
Reading about Jesus is an occupational expectation for an editor of biblical studies. Not that this is anything new for someone who grew up thinking of him constantly. One of the issues often raised about the son of Mary and Joseph is what he did during his childhood. There are apocryphal gospels that address that question since the canonical ones don’t, other than a Lukan visit to the temple in Jerusalem where the professors were stumped by the student. A query that’s pondered from time to time is why nobody thought to write down the early years. A related question is less often asked: who knew in the early days that Jesus would amount to what he did? It’s pretty much accepted that the tales of a miraculous birth were borrowed from the common stock of quotidian cultural heroes of the day. Anybody famous had to have had a spectacular start. If they knew from the beginning, however, that he was going to be great, why didn’t they write his story?
Unless, of course, they didn’t know. Jesus was born, according to the best that we can reconstruct, in a working class family. He had brothers and sisters, according to the gospels, and since Joseph disappears from the story rather early, he was likely raised in by a single mother. Who pays attention to such mill-fodder as this? One of the common people who will, more likely than not, come to nothing? A statistic to make great the egos of Herods and Caesars. Who bothers to write such things down? It’s only after fame that we become interested. What made him so? How did his meteoric rise get started? Before then, who really cared?
Stuck here in the middle of Lent, it’s easy to forget that even Jesus started life as a nobody. Many who start life privileged end up obscure. There’s perhaps a cosmic balancing act taking place here. The fulcrum—and who thinks of the fulcrum while riding on the teeter-totter?—the fulcrum is the common person. Fame may ease the path to halls of power. Cronies will fall over themselves to kiss the hem of any robe headed toward the Oval Office. Those who claim such rights will do so on the back of a guy so occluded we don’t really even know where he was born. Or what he did before he was thirty. And had he lived out his life like the rest of his neighbors we wouldn’t be asking the question even now.
So this is the way epiphany works. (I know it’s Lent, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry.) I sat down to check my personal email after a horrid day at work, and since I have a Verizon account, I can’t help but see the news headline that’s on the page when I open it. When the headline said something about a new continent discovered by scientists under the ocean, I’ll have to admit that Atlantis sounded better than anything I’d heard in the office. So it was worth a click.
Turns out that this isn’t Atlantis at all—I have this habit of making naive assumptions—but a continent just north of Madagascar that sunk some nine million years ago. No happy lemurs or Homo sapiens around then. So when this Atlantis sank, there was nobody around to see it. At least not Plato.
The story was broadcast by Newsy and it made mention of Science World Report. Here’s where the epiphany piphed. I’d never heard of Science World Report. When I went to their site, the wonders of the universe spread out before me. “Dying Stars Reveal the Clue to Extraterrestrial Life: Earth-like Planets Unmasked” read one headline. “How Dinosaurs Evolved the World’s Longest Necks While Giraffes Fell Short.” These are the things I need to brighten me after a rotten day. A world with wonder in it. A world where money is not the sole, or even the highest good. A world where an intellect need not go to waste.
“Human Language May Have Evolved from Birdsong: New Meaning for Communication.” This website is like my eternal monologue in headline format. I’m not naive enough to suppose this website will be the nepenthe for all my workaday woes. But it does serve to remind me that science and religion are not always foes. A religion only becomes belligerent when it takes its truisms too seriously. We evolved in a world of wonder, but we’ve taken great care to remove the wonder from it. As if joy and delight were puerile phantasms with no place in the serious adult world of finance and industry.
I became an educator because I’ve always been in love with ideas. I lost my job in education because I was an idealist. Yes, continents do indeed sink. And while it may not be Atlantis down there, a simple click led me to a world of wonder. And that is, if anything can be, cause for hope.
It was a familiar British voice on the BBC that first introduced me to the concept of Dismal Days. As a very frugal couple newly married and living abroad for the first time, my wife and I had little entertainment other than the radio. Doctoral candidates didn’t have time for television, and besides, in Britain you had to pay for a television license in addition to the electricity it would cost to watch it. We didn’t even use our pathetic wall heater in winter. When the BBC 4 announcer mentioned that it was a medieval dismal day, my wife and I exchanged bemused glances. The concept has become part of our mental warehouses. Today is not a medieval dismal day in that sense, but Ash Wednesday brings a dreariness all its own. As a young Fundamentalist I didn’t know about this particular day, but when I attached myself to the local Methodist congregation I learned a history lesson.
Methodists descended directly from Anglicans (Church of England). And as I learned in my ill-fated Nashotah House days, some Anglicans believe they never really separated from Rome. Ash Wednesday has now become a widely recognized day of mourning and repentance (as if all days weren’t such) and for many years I submitted to the ashes. It was always with wonder, however, since Jesus purportedly said not to show any outward signs when you are lamenting. I wondered where the tradition began. The earliest references to Ash Wednesday date from the papacy of Gregory the Great, in the eighth century of the Common Era. It is just like the Middle Ages to add drear to an already dark and cheerless season. Lent was originally intended for reflection, but in the macabre mind of the Dark Ages it became an excuse for utter misery.
Dismal Days are actually far older. In origin we again have the Romans to thank, although they blamed the Egyptians. In Roman society two days each month were deemed infortuitous to begin important ventures. In fact, the word “dismal” derives from the Latin for “evil days.” The idea that certain days are especially gloomy is a hangover from superstition that many rational people have now completely disregarded. Many of those rational people, however, will be spotted today with ashes on their otherwise hygienically cleansed foreheads.
Each year as spring struggles to overcome winter’s terminal chill, colorful flowers begin to burst from the earth to announce the rebirth of hope. So it is that bright purple signs have begun to spring up all over town announcing the joy that is Lent. Wait a moment – Lent and joy in the same sentence? The radiant signs read, “Lent: a good time to come home.” That’s not the Lent I remember. Having spent the longest decade of my life at a seminary that was frequently touted as “all Lent, all the time,” I suffered my share of the season. While I think I comprehend the tactic behind this attendance boosting campaign, I wonder if it isn’t leading with the chin.
Back when flowers were the first colorful signs of spring, when I was young, churches did not advertise. Stolid bastions of the truth, each and every one, they awaited sinners to come to their senses and select the correct avenue to the truth. If you missed, well, Hell never turned anyone away. Nowadays, however, we need advertising to convince us. In a consumerist heaven, we are deluged with choices. When the faithful dither, it must be time to advertise.
The first to admit personal bias, my experience of Lent has usually been dreary and unrelenting. A naturally quiet and self-critical individual, I don’t need a whole denomination on my back to force me to think about the faults I already castigate. The thought of the season makes me shudder – people who spend all the rest of the year looking out for number one are to emulate Jesus’ reflective 40 days in the wilderness to be like their savior, only to snap back to their old self-serving ways on Easter. Could be a recipe for collective schizophrenia. Temporary Christianity. Do we really need more occasions to be glum? My favorite part of Lent was always Mardi Gras; at least then we were working on something new to contemplate during the next 40 long, chilly days.