Ash Wednesday is probably the least fun of all the Christian holidays (which would partially explain why so many denominations don't even bother celebrating it) and yet it happens to be my favorite. Unlike Christmas or Easter, you can't really sex up Ash Wednesday with a make-believe character or a pretty story to make it more digestible for small children. You won't see Dusty the Former Palm Sunday Branch blowing around giving little children kisses on their foreheads, and leaving them with small presents of communion wafers. No, Ash Wednesday is what it is. It's a day for fasting and repentance where you attend a church service, hear some very difficult liturgy, and have your forehead marked with ashes. It is the beginning of Lent, the forty days in which we commemorate and emulate the time when Jesus wandered into the desert with no food and only the Devil for company.
My history with Ash Wednesday has been short but significant. Basically, I was a freshman at Messiah College and I needed chapel credits. I wish I could give you a more pious motivation for attending an Ash Wednesday service, but the simple fact is this: my credits were low and the service ended just before I could have my buffet-style dinner in the cafeteria. I gave very little consideration to the significance of the day itself. To me, Lent had always been like one long, Christian equivalent of a New Year's resolution. When I actually remembered the date Lent began, I would always resolve to "give up" things like potatoes, bread, or chocolate (clearly I grew up during the Atkin's diet craze) but about two (one) weeks in, I'd shrug my shoulders and eat as I pleased.
But when I went to that first service and listened to the minister speak about repentance and sacrifice, something stuck with me. I'm not talking a happy epiphany with celestial music and a brand new outlook on life. I'm talking about something small, yet significant, that irks you the rest of your day, like a popcorn kernel in the back of your molar. You see, my whole life I grew up with these over-the-top, excessive holidays of Christmas and Easter. It wasn't a legitimate holiday in our house unless you had to empty half of the attic and spend the entire day decorating downstairs. But here at this short service I finally met a day whose idea of "decoration" was a black mark upon my face. A mark of shame, repentance, sorrow, and fear of God. Here was a day in which the minister not only called me to suffer, but to take joy in the process. And I've been celebrating it ever since!
I don't know why I love this day so much. Perhaps it's because every day of my existence is one of comfort, security, nourishment, and ease. This day is a reminder to me that at the center of my faith is a cross, a historical symbol of torture, suffering, persecution, and humiliation. Ash Wednesday reminds me that the cross' historical "attributes" continue to exist in the world today. When I "suffer" through a day without food, I am in relationship with those in the global community who suffer daily.
Most importantly, though, Ash Wednesday asks me to refocus my reliance on God again. You go 27 years of never wanting for anything, you sometimes (always) take for granted what you need, which is faith. I put so much of my energy into thinking about food, buying food, making food, loving food, giving food...that it has become my identity, my love language, and my religion.
So starting next Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, I am starting the Lent(il) Project. For forty days I will not buy a single piece of food, nor will I patron any restaurants. I will eat everything that is in my cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer for the entire season of Lent. I'm calling it the Lent(il) Project because *SPOILER ALERT* after a brief inventory of my cupboard, I discovered that I have about 10 lbs of assorted beans. As the Lent(il) Project progresses, my goal is to give a more detailed description of the Project itself, what I hope to accomplish, what I'm working with, and you know...funny anecdotes that go along with spending forty days eating beans.
If you would like to accompany me to an Ash Wednesday service at Corpus Christi (Carney's Point, NJ), the service begins on February 22nd at 7:15AM. If you're reading this, it's likely you have my number or email. Happy Suffering, everyone!