Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Memento Mori: A Valentine for Ash Wednesday 2018

Our culturally conflicted way of looking at Lent — plenty of Christians don’t observe it, but plenty of secular people do — says a lot about how we conceive of sacrifice and self-denial. Its spiritual aspects (we should give up sweets to focus on God) are more difficult to contend with than its practical aspects (we should give up sweets to lose weight).

Lent, fundamentally, is about facing the hardest elements of human existence — suffering, mortality, death. That the season has turned into giving up Twitter shows that we haven’t gotten good at talking about them yet.
First, to quibble with the article (which is actually quite valuable, on its own terms), Lent is not about preparing for death, or coming to terms with death's inevitability.  But that's an interesting take on it, because it's medieval origins lie in memento mori, in the line from Genesis used by most priests and pastors to inscribe ashes on your forehead (and I wish, again, I had a community of worship where I could receive those this morning).   It's less about death's inevitability, than about death's reality.  The Christian liturgical calendar is meant to recapitulate not just the life of Christ (birth; death; resurrection; earthly teachings sustained through the church), but to recall the human to the ways of God (Advent is preparation for the birth, Christmas/Epiphany the celebration of that birth (which used to last until Ash Wednesday, hence Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday), preparation for the death and resurrection of Christ, celebration of the resurrection which lasts until Pentecost Sunday, and the longest part of the calendar, the season of Pentecost, which lasts until the First Sunday of Advent starts the calendar over again.).  Church has moved from the center of life, both communal and personal, to the fringes of life (TV is more central to us than ever, but TV church is still a fringe feature of modern life), just as we have moved death from the churchyard to the "memorial gardens," a place fewer people frequent than church.

I pastored a church with a cemetery on the grounds, one that dated back over 150 years when I was there.  Some years before I arrived the members of the church had taken it upon themselves to clear the grounds of the cemetery, but back the brush and remove some of the trees that had sprung up from their neglect.  Part of that neglect was because the cemetery was virtually closed; only a few members had plots there awaiting their burial.  Part of the neglect was because it was a cemetery.  We don't go to cemeteries unless we have to.  Then again, why should we?  They are sad monuments to the ephemeral nature of our existence.  As the poet said, before us lie deserts of vast eternity, and the grave is a very, very private place.  If the children of the deceased are themselves deceased, the grandchildren are not likely to tend the graves, or decorate them, or even live near them.  Granite monuments to a family name are, within a very few years, simply words carved into stone that no one reads anymore, that no one can interpret because who knows who they are?

Remember, human, that you are dust.

It's simply a good thing to remember, a reminder of our mortality, a measure of our humility.  Thomas Merton pointed out there is no "sacrament of death" in Christianity, and Lent (and especially Ash Wednesday, of which he was writing) are not meant to create one sotto voce.  But we are dust, and to dust we will return, and all our convictions of our immortality which supposedly fire our religious beliefs (according to the harshest critics) are undone by that simple truth, and once a year we are called upon to remember it.

The symbolism of the ashes is a profound one.  The palm fronds of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem from the year before, become the ashes which mark our faces with the sign of death and humiliation.  Scholars have pointed out we would understand Roman crucifixion today as involving sexual abuse because the victims were hung naked high above the crowds that might have gathered to watch the slow dying.  Consider that when you read the Johannine gospel where Jesus talks to his mother from the cross, or just hangs before the jeering crowds depicted in the synoptics.   If it makes our Lent a little more uncomfortable, our Good Friday a little darker at noon, then perhaps it should.  Auden reminds us we are human, carnal, that what goes into us comes out of us.  The dead loose their bowels, empty their bladders, release all that is inside that can find an easy exit.  The crucified die naked, drowning in their own body fluids as their lungs fill up with liquid that can't be cleared.  We are dust, but we are solids, too; and liquids; and waste; and flesh.

Jesus denied the flesh for 40 days; that's the Biblical narrative that gives Lent it's time frame.  The 40 days reflects the Biblical narrative of the 40 years the slaves who escaped Egypt spent in the wilderness, because they gave the flesh its due and built a golden calf as a symbol of what they worshipped (gold and animals, wealth and living things they could control) while Moses was on the mountaintop receiving the law from the God of Abraham.  They failed the test of trust in God who provided manna when there was no food; Jesus revisited that test, and passed.  And so for Lent, the tradition is to fast, as Jesus did.  It is our preparation for the death that Jesus would undergo.  Does it bring us closer to God?  Perhaps; but not mechanically.  Done right, rather like prayer, it doesn't affect God or perhaps even us, so much as it forces us to focus more on God and the way of life God offers.  Which is only partly a religious ideal, but it also a wisdom ideal.  Here I should cite the words of the atheist Alain de Botton, with whom I agree more than I disagree on some matters (rather like Tara Isabella Burton, I find something to agree with even as I find areas of disagreement):

Religions are not just a set of claims about the supernatural; they are also machines for living. They aim to guide you from birth to death and to teach you a whole range of things: to create a community, to create codes of behavior, to generate aesthetic experiences. And all of this seems to me incredibly important and, frankly, much more interesting than the question of whether Jesus was or wasn’t the son of God.

The underlying ambition of religions is impressive to me. They are trying to locate the tenets of a good life, of a wise life, of a kind life. They are interrogating the greatest themes, and so I'm attracted to the aspects of religion that know that human life is quite difficult and that we are going to need a lot of assistance, a lot of guidance. And what religious life is trying to do is to provide us with tools for how to keep being the best version of ourselves.
I do not lightly set aside the "claims of the supernatural," so much as I would, in another discussion, challenge the idea of "supernatural" (Is love real?  Or supernatural?).  And I would say the aims of Judaism and Christianity (with which alone Botton seems to be familiar, as are most atheists, which tells you something about atheism) go beyond "codes of behavior" and "aesthetic experiences."  But he's on the right path, if heading for the wrong goal.  I do agree that the purpose of the law and the prophets, of the gospels and the epistles, is "to locate the tenets of a good life, of a wise life, of a kind life."  The vision of the holy mountain in Isaiah is a place the world is drawn to because it works; not because the world has all converted to the religion of the children of Abraham (who were not "Jews" at the time of Isaiah's vision).  And becoming "the best version of ourselves"?; not really.  As Burton quotes in her article, Lent is not about becoming the best version of yourself.  But there we run into the problem of how we understand humanity today, versus how humanity was widely understood (in the West) before the 19th century.

It is in the earlier understanding of what it is to be human that Lent has its roots.  We don't reconnect to those roots just by meditating on mortality; we don't accomplish anything worth accomplishing by seeking a simple process that will carry us to our goal.  Fasting doesn't make us better Christians; or improve our piety; or change our souls.  But it is a good practice, a good discipline.  It can make the resurrection feel more like....well, a resurrection.

A strict observance of Lent made possible a pleasure which is unknown to us now, that of "un-Lenting" at breakfast on Easter Day. If we look into the matter closely, we find that the basic elements of our pleasures are difficulty, privation, and the desire for enjoyment. All these came together in the act of breaking abstinence, and I have seen two of my great-uncles, both serious, sober men, half swoon with joy when they saw the first slice cut from a ham, or a pate disembowelled, on Easter Day. Now, degenerate race that we are, we could never stand up to such powerful sensations!

--Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Should I point out here Brillat-Savarin was writing in the late 18th century?  Degenerate race that we are.....

The real power of Lent is in the discipline we can impose on ourselves, if we choose to.  Here is the deep secret of Lent, of faith, of religious observance:  it is up to us.  We choose to do it, we choose to make ourselves open to the changes it offers; or we don't.  God is not in the fast, God is not in the praying, God is not in the ritual, anymore than God was in the whirlwind or the earthquake or the fire that passed by Elijah.  But God is present nonetheless (call it "supernatural" if you must).

I started this post the way I start most of them, with a reaction to something someone else had written.  I end it reacting to myself, to what I have written.  Well, I would, but I would rather end it with the words of Isaiah; not as a rebuke to anyone, or even a challenge to your Lenten discipline (or, more like mine perhaps, lack thereof); but also to remind us of what matters in Lent, and all the year around:

Isaiah 58:1-12

58:1 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

58:2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

58:3 "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

58:4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

58:5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

58:6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

58:7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

58:8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

58:9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

58:10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

58:11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

58:12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

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