Strange isn’t it, when something seems out of place, it catches your attention? Yesterday was another long day. As I made my way though Austin on my way home, I briefly stopped by the grocery store to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy. I’m not sure that I initially even looked directly in the man’s direction. He was standing in line at the grocery store waiting to be checked-out. I caught sight of him in my peripheral vision. Something didn’t seem right. I looked directly at him even though I was some distance away. It was then that I saw what had caught my attention. It was his forehead. He had a large dark spot on his forehead.
It took me a minute to process what I was seeing. Then I remembered the instant message I had seen on messenger the morning before. It was from a long time friend reminding me that yesterday was the first day of Lent. He asked, “What are you going to give up?” I responded that I would have to give his question some thought. I added that suggesting to him that I was going to forego eating healthily didn’t seem like an appropriate response.
That explained it. The smudge on the man’s forehead was a smudge of ash. It wasn’t just a smudge. It was in the shape of a cross. I didn’t grow up with any awareness of the meaning of Lent or the tradition of Ash Wednesday. It was alien to any concept that I’d ever known. If I ever heard the term Lent, I intuitively thought of the kind that was spelled with an “I”. Lint was a string or particle of something unwanted on one’s clothing. I was totally unknowledgeable about the term related to the expression of one’s faith.
Subsequently, while I was standing in line at the pharmacy, my mind went back in time. It was the late 1970s. I was in Houston on a work assignment. A colleague from the office was also in Houston as well. He was Episcopalian. The tradition of Ash Wednesday and the season of fasting and prayer before Easter Sunday were part of his tradition and expression of faith. He invited me to attend an Ash Wednesday service with him at an Episcopal church. It was a new experience for me. For one thing, I had never had ashes on my forehead before. I remember it to this day. Part of what I remember is that he inadvertently and unknowingly locked the keys to his car inside his car. Of course, that discovery wasn’t made until it was time to leave. Siri wasn’t available back then to summon a locksmith for us. For that matter, neither were cell phones. It was the only time that I’ve ever been delayed in a church parking lot.
My friend was the first person to explain to me the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent. He said the ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. It is also a reminder that one day our bodies will become dust again. When the priest applies the ashes to a person’s forehead, he speaks the words: “Remember that our are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The ashes are reportedly made from blessed palm branches and highlight the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Subsequently, the ashes smeared on one’s forehead serve as a reminder of the hope that we have in Christ. It carries with it the concept of repenting and believing in the Gospel.
Reportedly, giving up something for lent also carries a sacrificial ring to it. It also serves as a reminder of the sacrifice of his life that Christ made for us. It is also a reminder of the gift of eternal life that is ours because of our faith.
Though I have a vague understanding of Lent and the concept of giving something up, it seems to me that many folks don’t opt to give up things that necessarily reflect a sacrificial spirit on their part. For example, I could opt not to eat liver and onions during the Lent. I could flawlessly do that. However, it would not be sacrificial on my part. It would make absolutely no difference in business as usual.
Several years ago, the General and I went to visit a friend in the hospital. It was St. David’s Hospital on 32nd street. I parked in the parking garage and as you exit, there are about three steps you have to take to get to level ground. The General somehow tripped and fell. How convenient is that? If you’re going to hurt yourself, why not do it at the hospital? She really wasn’t injured. I helped her up and she assured me she was okay. A man walking our direction asked, “Are you okay?” She responded “yes”. Leave it to me to take advantage of the situation. I added: “She gave up beer for Lent and the whiskey is killing her.” The man laughed. He knew I was joking. The General on the other hand didn’t think it was funny at all. In fact, if looks could kill, my days would have been done.
As I left the grocery store with my prescription in hand, I thought about the man I had seen as I entered the grocery store. I actually found myself wishing that I, too, had attended an Ash Wednesday service and focused on all that Easter represents. How different our lives would be if we consistently lived with the recognition of the difference one’s faith should make.
Sometimes there is a big difference between theory and practice. Perhaps, nowhere is that more evident than in the Christian faith. We are good with the talk, but we struggle with the implementation. It is easy to verbalize what we know to be true, but it is a stretch for us to carry out if it goes against the grain of what we want to do. Never is that more true than when it comes to the concept of forgiveness. We are reluctant to be forgiving people.
Maybe, just maybe, giving up anger or disdain toward someone whose been offensive might be worthy of something to give up for Lent. Hopefully, by the time Lent is over, the freedom to live without carrying an unwelcoming or uncaring spirit might seem like too big a burden to pick up again. At least, I hope so.
All My Best!