Thursday, February 01, 2018
This is no time to be cute.
As one of the wise “old” college-aged camp counselors would say while navigating the sail boat across the bay, “this is no time to be cute.”
I am remembering that lesson because this is one of those strange years when Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day and when Easter is also April Fool’s Day. This is no time to be cute.
One must tread carefully on Ash Wednesday, because what is called up on this day most centered on penance is at once deeply personal and at the very core to our being and identity. We are acknowledging that we can’t go it alone. We recognize our limitedness. Together we will stare into our mortality. We will face the fact that we are broken. We will recall, I hope, with sadness and chagrin how we mistreat each other and the evil that we do. Ash Wednesday is all about sin.
There. I said it. Ash Wednesday is all about sin.
There is nothing cute about it. But it is very necessary.
And if it feels hard or scary to enter into, it's because the process we are invited into is both. What we are dealing with is both immediate and eternal, a grace that we don't earn but always learning to live.
I have to admit that it took me a while to warm up to the idea of mimicking basketball brackets to think about saints and the nature of holy discipleship as we move through Lent. It's a balancing act, for sure, popularizing contemplation. What we don't want to do is to fall into the temptation to mute the depth, the hurt, the pain, and the implications of human sin with an excess of cleverness.
When I was a clinical chaplain, we'd take ashes around our hospital to patients and their loved ones keeping vigil, This was punctuated by a liturgy in the chapel, and accompanied by an act of confession, absolution, and prayer at each bedside. I was always fascinated that even in the most American Protestant town as you could find, where this hospital was, everyone wanted "in." People would walk up to us and ask for "their" ashes.
Last year, I tried my first "Ashes to Go" at the local park-and-ride and I felt myself leaning over the precipice of the cute. Doing this in the hospital and at the bus stop was, well, different. One was for the sick, and the other was for the busy.
There is a tension between taking pastoral ministry and the Gospel to where people are and the place where it gets cutesy, covering over the rough, uncomfortable spaces. I suspect that this was one reason that Martin Luther got so riled at Tetzel five hundred years ago.
So, I would hope that we avoid the temptation to get cute and draw heart shaped ashes on each other’s heads on Ash Wednesday instead of the smudged cross or to distribute candy along with the Sacrament. And, come Easter morning, it will be interesting to see how we use the most obvious punchline ever handed to every preacher on the planet, but we should probably leave the joke to the professional comics.
Giving in to the temptation of the cute distracts people from the core task of Lent, Holy Week, and the Triduum: that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).”
We will also miss the irony that while the world is passing out chocolates or playing pranks, it is also revealing-- and trying to cover over-- our deep need for love, our brokenness of heart and spirit, the depth of our division and loneliness, and our powerlessness. One day, the world will be dripping with sentimentality and on the another, crazy with cheap tricks. And on those very days, we will know precisely where the discomfort comes from and can offer God's answer to it.
That doesn’t mean we can’t use the days to talk about what’s really going on. We should never pass up the opportunity to speak about God’s love for us in the person of Jesus. After all, everyone else in the room will be noticing the coincidence along with the preacher. But this is not a moment for cuteness, it is moment of humility. And six week and a half weeks later, it won’t be a time for pranks, but for awe.
God loves us, and through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God is going to the depth of human sin, and into the reality of the human heart, the contrast between what the world values and how God responds could not be plainer. Underneath secular Valentine’s Day is a search for connection and love. And certainly on the first day of April we will discover again that in the resurrection God has turned human wisdom into folly and what will seem foolish to the world is God’s gateway to life.
It might be a good time to crack open the forgotten Inkling, Charles Williams, and think about how romantic love points us to divine love. There might be a chance to think about the contrast (and tension) between God’s foolishness and our own.
See? There’s plenty to contemplate without resorting to heart shaped candies with clever sayings or lame pranks in the hope that we will seem cool. We don’t need to belabor the irony to get the joke.
As for me, I plan to transfer the feasts. We Episcopalians are pretty good at that. I will take my beloved out the weekend before Valentine’s Day, and I will save the foolishness for after Easter dinner (and the liturgical nap).