Ash Wednesday, Lent

Our Meridians of Mortality

Fat Tuesday snuck up on me this year, which means that Lent did, too. I had been very busy with work and a recent vacation to Iceland. And I had lost track of the liturgical calendar, which can also mean that I had not been to church in some time. For those of us for which Lent has meaning, it is a kind of reorientation of sorts, an aligning of ourselves to a kind of meridian of mortality. There is a shock to it. And this shock elicits a kind of writhing of activity, an attempt to rationalize in frantic action before striking the walls of our human limits. Perhaps, it's akin to living organisms willing to do anything to remain alive. This frantic action is manifested in the day before Ash Wednesday.

In New Orleans, the Roman god of wine, Bacchus, is employed to exemplify the revelry and debachery of Mardi Gras. But it is important to recall that his Greek counterpart, Dionysus, in Euripides' play, The Bacchae, drives his followers beyond madness, literally tearing each other limb from limb and consuming each other in bacchanal frenzy. The activity of life takes on a cruel creativity, something beyond its bounds, and becomes a kind of unliving. When Agave, the mother of King Pentheus (whose name means "Man of Sorrows") , is released by Dionysus from her maenad state and he returns to her senses, she realizes she has unknowingly killed and eaten her son. Poor, poor Pentheus. Life taken to the extreme ends in shocking death. 

Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday are two sides of the same coin. There is the shock of ecstasy (literally, "out of one's regular state") and then the whiplash strike of utter self-consciousness. We cannot live in either way as states of being. We just couldn't get by in life. But it is good to acknowledge these two extremes not only in a quick mental nod, but in a full articulation in action. You cannot have Ash Wednesday without Fat Tuesday, nor Fat Tuesday with Ash Wednesday.

I ate a lot of sugar yesterday. That was my over-indulgence. I mean, a lot of refined sugar. From my trip, I had brought for my colleagues a lot of Icelandic candy. I didn't get to eat pancakes for Shrove Tuesday and so I ate a Belgian waffle from a nearby food cart. Then, for lunch I ate a fried pimento cheese sandwich and a kolache. Dinner was an egg salad sandwich and a Hostess pastry. I did this on purpose. I sugared and fatted the hell out of myself. It was a terrible eating day. And I did it on purpose. And to be honest, just thinking about it, makes me feel a little sick. Beh.

And why did I do it? To shock myself out of a kind of blind excess of consumption that has become my routine. I self-consciously over-indulged to prepare myself for the spirit of Lent. I'm already mostly ovo-lacto vegetarian (the origins of which are another Lenten story), so I turn to veganism and limit my salt, refined sugars and fats to as little as possible. And with giving up, I also take up. I will write and read more. This is my devotion for the season.

Will all this bring me closer (however that may be done) to Christ (whoever and whatever that is)? I'm too much of a jaded theologian to say either way. I hope that it will be bring me closer to myself, as well as far, far away from my self. Lent is a season for everyone. Some will find Christ. Some will find nothing. Most will find something in between. What is important is our mortal meridian. A meridian is a longitudinal line along two poles. The purpose of Lent is not to arrive at one of the poles. Poles are points of extreme. The purpose of Lent is realignment, of recalibration. Lent is a recalibration to Christ and to ourselves. It takes time and it takes effort and it takes focus.

Ash Wednesday is our day to focus on that focus more than any other day. It is the beginning of the end. Nothing more and nothing less. Let us smear oily ash on our foreheads and begin to discern our mortal meridian. Let us enter and leave in silence, the shouts of the night before echoing in our blurry heads. It is time to focus on what is important so things don't sneak up on us so easily.

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