It has been my habit, over recent years, to ring a little bell at Ash Wednesday, to my readers Christian and non-Christian alike; to remind the former, to explain to the latter.
Christmas and Easter are still noticed in the “mainstream media”—though seldom as religious events. Nevertheless everyone knows they have Christian origins. “All Hallows” may be forgotten, yet Hallowe’en has grown, during my lifetime. It has been morphing, in the childless, urbane, high-disposable-income neighbourhoods, into an adult dress-up party. Thanksgiving, too, has been fully de-Christianized.
On Monday, in this Province of Ontario, we “celebrated” something called “Family Day” for the third time.
It was one campaign promise our premier delivered on from the last election; and I noticed its effects as “staffless Monday” in a nursing home I visit regularly. A home, like most, founded as a religious charity, now run by a government department.
Since the meaning of the word “family” has been altered by judicial and legislative fiat in recent years, I cannot guess what precisely we were supposed to celebrate. “Diversity,” I suppose: the politically-correct term for any bureaucratic policy that eliminates fruitful forms of variety in human life.
Ash Wednesday is fruitful.
This may at first seem a paradoxical observation—like the paradox of the forest or grass fire, the ashes from which replenish the fertility of the soil. The theme of death preparing the way to new life is written deeply into “Western Civ” by way of the very Christian liturgical order that we have been publicly deleting; written so deeply, that it continues to surface, and even when twisted, continues to grow.
The season of Lent, beginning today, and continuing through 40 days and six Sundays to the Feast of the Resurrection at Easter, is a spiritual grass fire.
It has a crucial place in the cycle of Christian life. It is the mark of sincerity upon a people who must cut themselves down, clean themselves up, embrace purity, “return to roots.”
The Lenten impulse is perhaps alive, though very twisted, in our contemporary obsession with dieting. We diet when we notice that we have become absurdly fat, but we do it only from vanity. As my colleague George Jonas has put it, this is part of some strange postmodern ritual in which we live for the sake of producing the most attractive possible corpse. It is the mark of materialism on our foreheads, the brow fretted with guilt that we may be assimilating too many calories. Then the cosmetic effort to remove those wrinkles.
Lent has an outward and inward logic. It has, in either case, nothing to do with dieting. The person who uses Lent as his 40-day crash program to shed those unwanted kilos may be blessed, but not by God. Indeed, sane Mother Church exempts her children from any of the rigours of Lent that might endanger their health. For the season is not meant as an exhibition of Christian fanaticism; and the Founder made clear that we do not fast like the Pharisees—in a self-righteous, demonstrative way, calling attention to our supposed holiness.
Specifically, the instruction to the Christian who unexpectedly finds himself presented, as someone’s guest, with meat and wine during his Lenten observance, is to eat and drink.
And to do this “out of charity” to one’s host, rather than insulting him. A fast in its nature is done quietly, in the sight of God.
The self-abnegation associated with Lent is broad in disposition, and embraces acts of charity and prayer done equally in secret. The cutting-down of self extends from the material plane to the intellectual, and emotional, and spiritual. A fast involves much more than food; but since food is at the centre of our daily lives, we can hardly overlook it.
Traditionally, Lent was (and thus remains) the primary season in which persons wishing to be received into the Christian fold made their approach and preparations. It was (and remains) the opportunity to get into the rhythm of religious life, by setting aside habits acquired outside it. The effort to hear that “still small voice” of conscience, which puts us in communication with the divine, requires a conscious effort to reduce the background hum of appetite and distraction.
And for those long since received into the life of the Church, visible and invisible, Lent is the annual opportunity to “renew one’s vows.”
We live today in an intensely “secular” society, in an environment from which hints and reminders of the great religious truths have been, for the most part, removed. We no longer live in a world in which the steeples of the churches dominated the skyline of every town. It is hard for us to observe the religious seasons, even to remember them.
Therefore we must pinch ourselves, keep reminding ourselves, of life beyond the trough.