Thursday, February 23, 2012
At right, ash paintings by members of the Wellsprings collective, Church of the Redeemer, Toronto, March 2011
I hate Lent.
It’s a magnet for much of what’s worst about the Christian tradition: the individualistic moralism; the wallowing self-accusation, as though that were of itself a virtue; the willful refusal to acknowledge what’s good and right about our lives, and not in need of rescue. Virtually every time I’m asked to participate in a public litany of private wrongdoing, my heels dig in. I’m not unaware that I screw up, massively, in my personal life. But the platitudinous catalogues that usually get rattled off in penitential liturgies can’t possibly access the specific ways I’ve been less generous, less compassionate, less loving, less just, than I want to be (and that I believe I’m called to be).
At the same time, despite their public performance, these rites rarely get to the heart of what repentence at a systemic social level might mean. So get back to me when the Roman Catholic bishops go down without hesitation on their knees, every last mitred one of them, to beg forgiveness from the survivors of sexual abuse by the clergy; or when in a public liturgy Americans repent of standing by passively while our elected government has waged pointless, brutal, and unjust wars for a decade; or when Canadians confess our shameless exploitation of the environmental riches that national rapacity has proven all too finite.
My disaffection as a gay man is all the deeper because the language that gets used in these services inevitably conjures up too many years of hearing it used like a blunt instrument of homophobia. On the very fine website, Out in Scripture (www.sites.hrc.org/scripture), writing about the Bible readings for Ash Wednesday services, Dierdre Hinz observes, “We have to be very careful when we speak of repentance in relation to the LGBT community. Some have internalized the negative and oppressive views expressed in cultural, political and religious realms. Others may blame themselves for not being more vocal or outspoken in response to these views and their attendant policies.” Douglas Abbott adds, “Repentance for the LGBT community has historically been an indictment of sin. Being called to repent and then being denied an opportunity to experience forgiveness within a faith community is the reality many LGBT people endure.”
And yet, there I was this afternoon, kneeling in front of a woman who invited me to remember that I’m dust, that to dust I shall return, and pressed home her point with a smudge of black ash applied with her thumb to my forehead. She made the rounds of the twenty of us who were there: the cancer survivor, the toddler in the arms of her mother, the diagnosed cancer patients, the nine-year-old twins on either side of their father.
Paradoxically, I can embrace Ash Wednesday itself without deep reservation, precisely because it’s there to remind me, in community with everyone else present, that mortality is the most basic fact of our lives—that we aren’t here forever, that we aren’t self-sufficient, that everything we use to ward off the admission of our fragility in fact gets in the way of living the life we’re given.
Strangely, this gesture that might seem grim and relentless almost always feels to me like one of the most intimate and loving connections that people can make with one another through ritual, precisely because of its unflinchingly honest mutuality. This afternoon, the pressure of the officiant’s thumb above my eyes gave way to the warmth of her palm laid briefly and gently on the side of my head as she finished delivering her reminder that someday I’m going to die. Herself the last among us to receive the sign of ashes, she accepted them from her own daughter.
As for the next six weeks, I could easily give up church for Lent. Except that there’s no telling when something as simple as a pinch of ash may break through all the piously masochistic shlock and wake me up to embrace more fully the real nature of the life I’m called to live.