A close friend of Mockingbird contributes the following reflection on the meaning of the day, and I’m sure you’ll agree that it is a welcome and considerably more profound alternative to the (admittedly irresistible) irreverence with which we’ve treated (the “public displays of piety” which characterize) Lent in past years. A touching and personal defense of the season, and today in particular, from an exceptionally sympathetic a point of view:

For those of us who came of age in certain fundamentalist or evangelical Protestant churches, life was a strangely disembodied affair. It is true that various sins of the flesh were railed against, but it never was in name of a truer way of actually inhabiting the world, of living joyfully within it. Instead, our bodies and the physical spaces of our existence were essentially temporary confinements, nothing but occasions for temptation, impediments to the spiritual life. Our subjugation to matter would be remedied through rapture or cataclysm – eschatology took the shape not of patient hope for the redemption of creation, which even now we groan for, but release from the grip of physicality altogether. Worship, and the religious life more generally, went ahead in spite of our bodies, with the hope of eventually transcending them altogether.

My fascination and love for Ash Wednesday only can be understood in relation to such a past, for lurking within this day’s penitential posture is a celebration of our mortal existence. It is a liturgical episode that takes our physical existence seriously. It is, perhaps surprisingly, an extraordinarily hopeful day. The superficial gloom of ashes to ashes, dust to dust, points to the paradoxical, deep truth of the Christian faith: those who lose their life will gain it. It is a day to be released from the deadliness of doing, which is to say released to live in the world.

Of course it is possible, even common, under the misguided moralism that blights most of our churches, to turn the beginning of Lent into a peculiar form of asceticism: we mortify the flesh in the name of the spirit, and deprive our bodies for the sake of religious “growth.” For Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and other liturgical Christians, a season of fasting and restraint can transmogrify into a dualism that is different in form, but not really content, from my youthful fundamentalism. The spiritual life can be pitted against our embodiment in a variety of contexts, whether “high church” or “low church,” liturgical or not. The constant allure of escapism is always at hand to turn such practices into a fearful longing to abandon the task of living patiently, generously, lovingly in a world marked by pain and sorrow. Part of us always wants to flee our bodies, and the world they move through, and Lenten observations can find their way to this place with astonishing ease.

One response to this line of thought, which is not unpersuasive, is that Lent assumes a relationship between our physical and spiritual lives. It is in its own way a season for people with bodies. It takes our bodies seriously enough to allow for a connection between what we do, eat, and drink, and what spiritual valence is possible for us. We go through our bodies, not away from them, when we make certain sacrifices. In a very basic sense, this is true. We might be able to fix our attention more clearly, or focus our attention in prayer more steadfastly, under certain conditions. Taken for not more than what they are, these practices can be a part of basically sound spiritual life. But such an observation misses the more important existential, personal element to what Ash Wednesday signifies.

The search for sanctification never is that far removed from neurotic burden. There always is something half-comical, half-tragic about the banalities of what we “give up” for Lent. And the knowledge of the unimpressiveness of our efforts in this area can lead us toward either triviality or despair. We can sacrifice the unimportant, and in this way not really care about what we are doing, or we can be crushed by the paltry efforts we make as they compare to the awesome horror of Christ’s death. So the insight that our bodies can positively relate to the spiritual life quickly can become a demanding, unyielding law that deprives us of the freedom the Gospels promise. We enter into a faulty problematic that induces us to ask how much is enough, or that weighs our sacrifices against what those around us do or do not do. In other words, the real, if limited, truth of Lenten restraint finds its perversion in the labyrinthine wanderings of the human mind, an anxiety about the sufficiency of our efforts that only really proves their insufficiency. Lent, when taken up into the cycle of man’s attempts at self-justification, can fix our gaze toward our own doing, and in this way upend the point of the liturgical season: what Christ has done.

Ash Wednesday, then, should be seen as standing guard over Lent, reminding us at its start of the core truth of Christianity: we must give up. We must give up not this or that habit or food or particular sin, but the entire project of self-justification, of making God’s love contingent on our own achievements. And the liturgy of this day goes right to the ultimate reality we struggle against, which is death itself. We are reminded, both by the words we say and the burned palms imposed on our foreheads, that we will die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Give up! Give up, for you will not escape death. The entire logic of the theology of glory, of all our Pelagian impulses, of all human attempts at mastery and control, are searched out and stripped away on Ash Wednesday. We are seen for what we are – frail mortals. All power, all money, all self-control, all striving, all efforts at reform cannot permanently forestall our death. Our return to dust is the looming fact of our existence that, in our resistance to it, provides a template of sorts for all the more petty efforts we make to gain control of our lives.

In this way, the repentance that takes place on this day also can be seen for what it is. The penitential rite is not a kind of shame inducing act of self-hatred. It simply is a recognition, and thereby acceptance, of our inability to love and do perfectly, which no amount of self-help strategies can change. It points to the utter gratuity of grace, its unearned, unmerited, even inexplicable nature. Repentence, then, is liberating. On Ash Wednesday, our confession of sin really is saying, “we give up.” By repenting, we opt out of the logic that turns the good news of Christianity into another form of bondage, of accusation and moralizing. We do not, on this day at least, pretend to be anything other than the flawed human beings we are. And it is this very lack of pretending that is such a relief to sufferers weighed down by guilt. Ash Wednesday is a day for honesty. We no longer have to fear or elide the truth about ourselves.

Perhaps this is what T.S. Eliot meant, in “Ash Wednesday,” when he cries out, “Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still.” The merger of caring and not caring might be thought of as non-neurotic engagement with the world. It implies a “doing” that is not deadly. When we sit still, we are still sitting in this world, with our bodies – not longing for escape. What Eliot, later in that poem, calls “the time of tension between dying and birth” gestures at our temptation: to turn this tension, the fact of our status as beings-toward-death, into a lack of stillness, of too much caring, of heaping burdens upon ourselves. This stillness ultimately resides within ourselves, for the swirl of the world surely is never ending. The task is not to flee such a world, but to dwell gracefully within it. We can, as Eliot puts it in the first stanza of “Ash Wednesday,” “rejoice that things are as they are…” Acceptance, total acceptance, and not mastery and reform, is the message of Ash Wednesday.

I still remember my first Ash Wednesday service. The church was dark, lit only by candles. The cool feeling of the ashes on my forehead was strange and wonderful. We ate and drank Christ’s body and blood. Without words to express it, the liturgy of that day was a rebuke to my fundamentalist, disembodied youth. As Andre Dubus wrote in his achingly beautiful short story, “A Father’s Story,” “ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.” I was tongue-tied, but felt the remarkable bodily affirmation of these rites: candles, ashes, wine, bread, kneeling, standing, singing. These were things for people living in the world, forms of sustenance more than goads to flee the temporal. If Jesus means freedom, if he really came to set the captives free, then this was my first intimation how that freedom can actually shape a life – that I could live. To paraphrase Auden, I now had the right to believe I really existed.

Ash Wednesday is a day for the hopeless and suffering, who are affirmed in their hopelessness and suffering rather than commanded to take up the task of self-improvement. When we give up hope, hope in our own abilities and efforts and doing, then the reality of God’s grace truly can become manifest. It is the occasion for an affirmation of who we are, not, ultimately, a plea to transcend our mortal condition. We can live in our bodies, in this world, seeing ourselves more compassionately and thereby are moved to perform works of love, without conditions or demands, for our fellow-sufferers. The first day of Lent is an occasion not for a form of world-denial, but loving acceptance of flawed reality, of imperfection. It is a rebuke to all separatism, escapism, and self-hatred. And of course, as it points us to the Christ-event, Lent ends, as it beings, with an affirmation of our creaturely existence: as Christ rose from the dead, so will our bodies, to live in a New Jerusalem – not an ethereal “heaven.”

Let the ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us of our mortality; let our repentance be the occasion for a reprieve from neurosis and anxiety; and let us patiently hope for the vindication of creation of which Christ’s resurrection was the first fruits. Let us live in the world. Let us inhabit our bodily existence gracefully and lovingly. Let us care and not care.