Some families have closets where out-of-season clothing and gear remain hidden away when not in use.
There is the sense the storage space is presently unavailable, though not much additional thought is given to its contents until a few days before it is time to change from one season’s wardrobe to another.
In some ways, the church year is like that. We are in the waning days following the joyous weeks of Christmas and the visit of the Magi and before the celebratory season of the Resurrection. It is a season some denominations call Lent.
Lent comes every year and so its presence, closeted away the rest of the year, is not entirely forgotten. Special rituals signal its arrival.
However, like cultural but non-religious observances of Christmas, there are cultural but non-religious observances of Lent. Nonetheless, they have their origins in the religious observances.
Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, is a day of unrestrained joy. It is frequently marked by parades, music and lots of rich and delicious foods hence the name.
The festivities of Fat Tuesday give way the following day to a very somber ritual, reminding us life is short and how we live life matters to the God who created us. On Ash Wednesday, individuals are marked with the sign of the cross, using the black ash that results from burning the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. They also hear the sober reminder to “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
We enjoy such abundance of plenty in this country that overindulging in rich foods is hardly the rarity it might have been for our ancestors. Fat Tuesday’s companion day, however, continues to retain its chilling effect on each person, regardless of one’s professed faith. For there can be no argument that everyone will die one day and the sober caution to pay attention is universally captivating. It is also a powerful invitation to consider the quality of our lives and degree to which each of us must give an account to God one day for the convictions of our hearts and the choices we made.
Just as one needn’t believe in the incarnation to decorate a Christmas tree or exchange gifts with loved ones, one needn’t believe in the judgment day to be smudged with ashes as a reminder of one’s mortality. But it does beg the question: what it is about our lives that makes the precious time we have left matter so much to us?
I believe the very participation in such a ritual practice — whether one participates as a believer in the resurrection, a seeker of the divine or as a complete doubter — is the evidence that God is at work in our lives, seeking to connect to us in those moments when we acknowledge we are not in charge. And that, ultimately, even the desire to matter is a divine gift intended to be the beginning of a holy conversation with God, not an opportunity for personal grandiosity.
In “Pensées,” Blaise Pascal wrote “this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace. This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him ... though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park is the associate rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville. She can be reached at email@example.com.