In the partly-churched world of my youth, we never got any down times. The Protestant churches I knew, mainstream and Evangelical, observed a church year, kind of. But only the high points.
Everyone celebrated Christmas. Even in that very secular college town, a lot of people actually went to church on Christmas Eve. Even if they didn’t believe that God was born of a virgin in Bethlehem, even if they didn’t believe in God period, it’s a great story. It makes you feel good about everything.
Many people also celebrated Easter by going to church. Not nearly as many as went to church on Christmas, but a surprisingly high number, considering how secular was the world in which I grew up. They didn’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, but the persecuted hero returning from the dead was another great story. Plus it provided a nice spring festival after the long New England winter.
What Christianity remained in that town mostly observed the high points without the hard parts. Outside the small Catholic church on the main street and the Catholic chapel at the university, no one observed Ash Wednesday or Lent in a way anyone else would notice. The Episcopalians on the town common must have observed it, but they certainly didn’t make their observance public. The rest of us knew about Ash Wednesday, if we did, only because later in the day we’d see a few people with smudges on their foreheads.
High and Low Points
My town’s secularish religion worked only so far. Just celebrating the high points doesn’t really help much. In life we have high points and we have low points. The world gives us great friends who have our back and it gives us enemies who plot against us. It gives us eyes to see the sunset and cancer that takes away the last thirty years of our lives. It gives us beautiful spring days and hurricanes that flatten whole towns.
We have our own low points, and some of those low points are our own fault. We know that. We know we’re not the men and women we should be. We need someone to tell us the whole truth, to say something about our faults. And especially about our sins.
I felt that need growing up in that secular world. We were taught that we were good people. Life was basically good and that things would work out well enough. Sometimes bad things happened and some people turned out to be really bad, but all in all, things were okay. That was the gospel my world proclaimed.
But things clearly weren’t okay. The newspapers were filled with stories of mass suffering and human evil. People killed, raped, destroyed, wiped out whole cities. And I knew that I wasn’t the person I should be. I did things I shouldn’t do. I hurt people to get what I wanted, and often didn’t realize it. I didn’t do the things I should. I knew genuinely good people and I wasn’t one of them. I felt a guilt that my world couldn’t explain and couldn’t heal.
I Found Ash Wednesday
Then, as a newish Christian, I found out about Ash Wednesday and Lent, and thought “This is so cool.” Finally, finally, someone was saying, “No, things are not all right. And no, you’re not all right. You feel guilty because you sin and you keep sinning.” Here I found a real gospel, a real good news, precisely because it was so realistic about the bad news that was me and the world. The Church wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know deep down, but it was helping me face it.
Sitting in the church on Ash Wednesday was like going to the doctor after suffering for a long time, when you hear the doctor tell you what’s wrong with you. Even if the news is bad, at least you know. Now you can face it and deal with it. You no longer have that worry bothering you from the back of your mind. You know the truth, and even the hard truth will set you free.
I know some people find the day hard because they grew up in a world that made them feel guilty about everything. Life can be hard enough without someone telling you that you’re no good. You may not hear the good news behind the priest’s “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
But for me it was a liberation. It still is, after all these years. The news is always bad. The world remains fallen. I remain a sinner. I am dust and to dust I will return.
The news is bad, really, really bad, but it’s not terminal. That’s just the diagnosis. The Church also points to the cure. After the ashes comes the Eucharist. Ash Wednesday and Lent lead to Easter. To enjoy the cure, though, you need to know that you’re sick.