"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Pretty heady stuff. Tonight I attended my first ever Ash Wednesday service. As religious holidays go, Ash Wednesday doesn't get much press. Certainly not as much as Easter or Christmas. And nowhere, even, near the attention of Shrove Tuesday, which gets the admittedly awesome and more famous name of Fat Tuesday.
It's understandable, really, why Ash Wednesday isn't popular among the masses. Besides the fact that it is meant to be personal, and not done "for the attention of men," it just isn't nearly so fun. There are no parades, no cake, no widespread frivolity, no scandals. Solemn penitence, in general, doesn't capture the imagination of people the way candles, incense, and hallelujahs do. And I'm pretty sure Ash Wednesday has never been associated with gratuitous titty-flashing. Not even in the liberal denominations.
Ash Wednesday is, at its core, a reminder of how frail we are as humans. How fragile and dependent we are upon the next breath, how easily we can die. It's a reminder, too, of our moral frailty. It's a call to self-discipline and mindfulness, for many a call to sacrifice or fasting. I don't know about you, but self-discipline isn't my favorite exercise. Heck, exercise isn't my favorite exercise.
Of course it's not necessary to give something up to observe Lent. Mindful living can just as easily be achived through a willingness to take better care of ourselves or of others, to start a project or speak positively, to reflect on our actions before taking them, to live with intent.
It's a good thing, too, as I have so little left to give up this year. I've lost my home, my income, most of my possesions, many friends, even my health. And I have little time for indulgences. My friend Penny's reaction to my mention of Lent was a profound exclamation: "What are you going to give up? You don't have any vices!"
This is more or less true. I rarely drink alcohol, I take my vitamins, I attend church regularly, and don't have time for television. I'm not even dating (except, perhaps, in the loosest sense of the word). Speaking of loose, I'm not even having sex. If I were, I certainly wouldn't give it up for 40 days!
This year, I'm not giving up anything for Lent. I'm adding something. It's more of an attitude adjustment, really, a determination to steer my life in the direction I want it to go, to be my best self, in several different ways. It's something I've been working on, anyway, but having a particular season in which to focus on it, from a spiritual perspective, gives me, if not clarity, at least direction: For 40 days, I will make choices that take me in the direction I want to go.
There's that mindfulness, that evaluation of what's important to me, and it contains many aspects: rest more, throw away old baggage, avoid toxic relationships and situations, stop wasting time on pointless regrets, and yes, lose weight (more on that in a later post). It certainly doesn't require a Lent or an Ash Wednesday service to make it happen. But I love that there's that spiritual, religious acknowledgment that, yes, this is an important part of life, and--if we're not careful--we may just overlook it. Self-examination is encouraged, at least once a year, for 40 days--not in a morbid, overly critical sense, but in sober acknowledgment that, yes, we are human, and we are frail.
My priest puts it more or less this way: Ash Wednesday is the one day a year when we publicly acknowledge that, yes, we are imperfect. We embrace our imperfection, our humanity. We remind ourselves, through penitence, through liturgical practice, that there is no need to present ourselves as perfect, no need for pretense or false airs. We are all lacking, we are still striving. That is where we find grace.