When I was a child, Ash Wednesday was a big deal. It was always preceded by the church’s annual Shrove (meaning “indulge”) Tuesday Pancake Supper. In New Orleans, it’s called Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras with parades and lots of loose lascivious living.
Ash Wednesday (February 14, 2024) starts the Lenten season, a penitential time for many until Easter forty days* later. This year presents a dilemma: Ash Wednesday is also on Valentine’s Day. What to do? Don some ashes or celebrate sixty-three years with my Annie?
As I was growing up, many different traditions were involved after the Tuesday pig out. Fasting started on Wednesday, and we’d prepare the ashes. Purple became the liturgical color. We’d attend solemn church services with ashes on our foreheads. At the start of Lenten, we’d give up something, and we’d send Lenten mite boxes for the missionaries in Africa. There was also a great deal of morbidity, talking about death—mostly Jesus’s—and being constantly reminded about what rotten and wretched sinners we are. Ash Wednesday was the start of a long dark season, and then Easter would finally come to end it.
As I grew older in the priesthood, I found I dreaded this season for lots of reasons:
- I intensely disliked in the Eucharist rite where everyone confesses, “We are not worthy to pick up the crumbs under thy table.” I don’t believe this for a second. Jesus saw everyone as worthy of love and respect.
- The ritual of preparing last year’s Palm Sunday’s palm fronds to ashes took on a whole ritual of its own, diverting people from doing what Jesus wants us to do: love the hell out of everyone.
- I had issues with putting black ashes on someone’s forehead in the form of a cross. Everyone who didn’t have some would all day long say, “You have a black smudge on your forehead.” That practice never made much sense!
- Then there’s issue with the cross. Isn’t the cross a sign of torture, pain, and violence? Why not use the sign for peace, a fish, or a sideward eight?
- As the priest imposes the ashes, she or he says, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I don’t think I came from dust, at least according to my biology book. When I die, eventually I’m going to become dust, but that plays havoc with ideas about heaven, hell, purgatory, Saint Peter’s Gate, and judgment. The church can’t have it both ways. It’s either dust or the above stuff. I’m going with dust.
- In the 1980s people stopped having “funerals” in church and instead had “Celebrations of Life,” a much more positive tribute. Why then doesn’t the church stop the negative morbid approach to Lent and make it positive? Forget giving up something for Lent, and start adding something, such as studying about the historical Jewish Jesus, becoming involved in a nonprofit group that works with the less fortunate, or learning more about Christianity and Buddhism.
- No more calling them Ash Wednesday and Lent and using the liturgical purple. Let’s call them Agape Wednesday and the start of the Growing Season and use a liturgical green.
What do you think?
Peace Love Joy Hope Kindness
* From Ash Wednesday to Easter is actually forty-eight days, but Sundays are always feast days (during which we get to live it up). The days of Lent are fast days (when we don’t get to live it up). Subtract those six Sundays gets us to forty-two days. But those keeping track of these things don’t count Good Friday or Easter Saturday as Lent, which gets us to forty, but who cares?
Photo by Thays Orrico on Unsplash