Ash Wednesday, 2010
It’s hard for us who have come up in a very cognitive faith to embrace the idea of a God who loves celebration. We like to qualify it: Yes, God does like celebration but only after all the serious business of dealing with our sin and stuff is done. But celebration seems to be a part of who God is, and it’s definitely (and delightfully) a major piece of the Story.
Last night was Fat Tuesday, historically a last night of eating rich, fatty foods before Lent begins. It has expanded in scope to be a celebration of excess and partying, as the French say, laissez le bon temps rouler, let the good times roll! I think the Church needs to learn to party really well. There is precedent for it, believe it or not. There’s that remarkable story in Nehemiah when the temple had been rebuilt and the people listened to Ezra read the Law of God. They finally got it– and they wept with remorse. But the response of their leaders was not to ask them to grovel or be shamed or try harder, but to celebrate:
And Nehemiah continued, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the LORD is your strength!” Nehemiah 8:10
In short, they were ordered to party and to re-orient themselves to God.
On Fat Tuesday we expose and even celebrate our shadow sides. It’s not because our shadows reflect our truest substance, but because we can finally come out of shame and hiding and be just as we are before God. This is a time of both confession and encounter. And I believe this helps us to see that what we truly celebrate is something that is far better than we knew. A favorite memory of mine is when our small group of a few years back got creative about “confession” on Fat Tuesday. In the spirit of partying, we each came to the gathering dressed in costume. Or rather, perhaps we came without the costumes that we present daily – the selves that we like to project out to one another, deftly hiding flaws and sin, commanding honor or attention. Like the Israelites, we became openly aware that we were sinful and needy. It was strangely freeing.
One woman came to the party dressed in a robe and carrying a gavel. “I am a judge,” she said, “I have judged all of you.” Another came dressed as Dorothy from Kansas, with a basket of various goodies that she gathered along the Yellow Brick Road, each designed to help assuage the pain and stress in her life. Another was a man with a tool belt, determined that he could fix all that ails us. Still another came as a ninja, dressed all in black, reflecting her secretive, hidden ways in her relationships. One man didn’t dress up but came as cynical and snarky, revealing attitudes that he often kept hidden. I came dressed as a bag lady, reflecting the inner fragility I often felt even as I projected a confident, learned church lady on the outside. We shared our stories and ate and sang, clothed yet soulishly more naked. It was a picture of the hope that binds us together– we see that we all are stark need of transformation, and that our religion is never a lonely, private matter. We partied and helped each other re-orient towards God.
And so, with confession and celebration as a response to God and our humble states, we are prepared for Ash Wednesday. Today we are painted with the ashes that remind us of our common humanity and our common end. “You are dust and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the good news.” It is an invitation to repent, literally, to change direction. It is an invitation to stop pretending we are better than we are and just be human, for it is in that dependent, humble place that we meet God. There is something about the God who came to us dressed in our own skins, wearing a face like ours, fully human and frail, that informs our journey. It is that God that has won my heart.
As we enter into Lent, may it be a time of humble reflection. Again, it is not about groveling or deprivation. It is about shedding what is false and learning to live in our true selves. It is about being transformed to something more Real that can take in and hold the New Wine. It is about Someone who is bigger than us, who is our strength for this path that so often takes us to places that we would never expect. Maybe celebration and welcome are in and of themselves transformational.
It’s a real relief to admit I can’t change myself. Perhaps what we need to “give up” for Lent is the illusion that we can create ourselves. Therefore, let us re-orient towards the One who continues at all times to speak us into being. He continues to whisper about who we truly are into our ears. Sit with the joyous Lover who celebrates with us even as we are exposed as needy and false. Listen, celebrate, and be transformed. Party well. Repent and believe the GOOD News.