Relationship, not Religion.
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Ring around the Rosie,
Pocket full of posies,
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Remember that one from kindergarten? Back when falling down was fun?
It seems pretty much everyone has heard the explanation that this nursery rhyme originated with the plague in 14th Century Europe. Even the good people at Snopes.com. They tell us this bit of children’s doggerel has nothing to do with the Black Death, at all. You can read their explanation here – http://www.snopes.com/language/literary/rosie.asp/
“Ring around the Rosie” may not be about the plague, but it does seem to fit Ash Wednesday pretty well. Imagine, if you will, this poem as a metaphor for life. Remember playing it as a kid. Holding hands, spinning in a circle, then dropping to the floor and laughing like a loon the whole time. Good times.
“Ring around the Rosie, pocket full of posies” — Singing, dancing, laughing, playing — this is living.
“Ashes, ashes, we all fall down” — collapsing to the ground in a heap — this is also living.
Because no matter how great our denial, no matter how hard we pretend otherwise, no matter how much time and money and energy we spend, life on this planet comes to an end. For each of us. For everything. Dying is simply another part of life.
That’s why we impose ashes to begin Lent. As a reminder. The ashes remind us of our mortality. They remind of us our basic createdness, thus pointing us back to the Creator. Which is exactly what Lent is supposed to do.
So let’s talk about Lent. Lent is the 40 day season on the liturgical calendar between (the season after) Epiphany and Easter. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday). You might notice there are 46 actual days on the calendar between Ash Wednesday and Easter. That’s because you don’t count Sundays as part of Lent. Lent is a season of fasting and penitence. And Sundays are always days of feasting and joy, Sundays are the Lord’s day, 1/52nd of Easter. So you remove the 6 Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter and end up with 40 days. Not insignificantly, these 40 days mirror the 40 days of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness (Mk 1:12-13), the 40 days Moses spent on the mountain with the Lord (Ex 24:18), the 40 days it rained on Noah (Gen 7:12) and even the 40 years Israel spent in the desert (Deut 8:2).
Lent is a season of penitence and fasting. It is a time of re-collection, when once again we remind ourselves of who our selves really are. Lent is a season of humility. Not bad-relationship, wipe-your-feet-on-me, barely hidden self-loathing kind of humility (which isn’t humility at all, but a perverse inversion of pride). But a truly biblical humility where we recognize we are not the center of the universe, others don’t exist for our pleasure and we are not God. As the fabulous Pastor Warren has said, “It’s not about you.” Biblical humility involves knowing that we are creature, created and creating, yet not Creator. (Here’s a quick way to check and see if you are God: speak something into being from nothing. If it works, ascend immediately to your heavenly throne. If it doesn’t, get in line with the rest of us to receive your ashes.)
Ashes are a sign of mortality and penance. We are marked with a cross of ashes on Ash Wednesday to remind us of our own certain demise. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. From dust we were formed (Gen 2:7) and to dust we shall return.
Penitence is the act of recognizing our wrong-doing and working to set it right. If you cannot directly amend that which you have broken, then do something else in its place. Acts of service, or devotion, or prayer can all be penance. We’re not talking about self-flagellation, we’re talking about a sacred apology.
Fasting is the act of giving up something in order to grow spiritually. If you give up meat in order to lose weight, that’s not a fast. That’s a diet. If you give up caffeine in order to break your addiction to Diet Coke, that’s not a fast. That’s torture. Fasting is letting go of one thing in order to gain a closer relationship with God. There are all sorts of Fasts, and you can learn more about Fasting in my post “Fast food Fast”. https://revjayg.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/fast-food-fast/
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word.
— (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p265)