Oh Felix Culpa, or Giving up on Holiness: Ash Wednesday 2012
February 22, 2012
I love Ash Wednesday. There is nothing better than a nice wallow in shame, scruples, and self-condemnation to lift the heart. Also, I get to feel super holy by not eating… ALL DAY LONG. Love. it. Every time my belly growls I get to feel close to Jesus, because look how hard I’m working! If warning bells aren’t going off right about now, please go find your spiritual director. Every one of those statements puts me in blown heresy, and the worst part is that if I’m honest, I can’t denounce them are as sheer sarcasm. I’ve been learning that the hard way all bloody day long today. I’m not engaging in what I personally consider a sufficient fast. I would normally not eat anything, and subsequently enjoy the glowing light inside that is one part Jesus and two parts unmitigated pride. Instead, not because I’m smart enough to have figured that out but because my superior ordered me to fast from excess in self-denial, I’m allowing myself to eat coffee and bread. It’s tasty and the equivalent of about half of one meal. It isn’t a lot, but it’s enough to jar me into realizing where my fasting focus has been the last several years. As I’ve read my usual procrastination gambit of blogs, emails, and Facebook statuses today it’s been a Thor’s-hammer-sized blow to my pride. One blog claimed that people who don’t wholly abstain from food on fast days are “what’s wrong with the western Church.” Ouch. I’m what’s wrong with the church. Another called out those who lack self discipline with pictures of Navy Seals- my coffee and bread won’t make me a navy seal for Jesus, I’m crystal clear on that now. The more I read, the more I felt like– well– super un-holy.
Like my scruple-wallowing practice, Ash Wednesday sometimes becomes a day for folks a day to beat their heads against the wall of self-condemnation (which we mistakenly name “the cross”) so that tomorrow when we stop it will feel so much better! But hopefully, I’m learning (and feel free to steal this lesson) one facet by which to one day enter into a properly ordered fast. Nothing about our practices on Ash Wednesday or lent have to do with “working for” our salvation or Jesus love. There isn’t anything about it designed to make us feel holy – or even unholy for that matter. In fact, it shouldn’t be about us at all. The crux of Ash Wednesday is turning our attention back toward the Cross and the Face of our Hope who hangs upon it. The words of Augustine and Paul- and the words of Jesus in today’s gospel- won’t let us get away with it. Instead Paul tells us via the Corinthians to focus upon reconciliation with God at all costs. Yes, we abstain, but the focus must always lie on reconciling with God our estranged Lover. Augustine reminds us that in Jesus, Adam’s fall becomes our fortune because it opened a door for Christ’s redemption and the sanctification of humanity. Morever the gospel reminds us that we shouldn’t fast like hypocrites– not because we should hide our witness– but because our witness isn’t to self-destruction or our own power but to the redemptive power and love of God.
Embracing the Cross today and every other day must finally be an act of unrestrained hope that clings to the promises of God. We fast to remember with gratitude that Jesus has given us his own body to sustain us. We abstain not make ourselves stronger in the battle against evil, but in order to remember that in God’s great Love we are already more than conquerors. We seek the Cross not as a weapon to use against ourselves, but as the means by which God draws all people into Jesus’ saving embrace.
I’m far from learning my lesson. I readily acknowledge that a full-blown Pelagian tendency won’t let me rest today. But- oh felix culpa, oh happy fall- the wheel’s begun its turn. The long and graceful shadow of the cross stretches out ahead, inviting me out of myself and into its embrace. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, help me grab on.
Ave Crux Spes Unica.