LENT FOR RELIGIOUS LIBERALS

MARCH 12, 2000
R.M. FEWKES


Lent has traditionally been a time of repentance, prayer, self-denial, and abstinence, the trademarks of what has been called, "the long lean season." In contrast to the question asked at Christmas, "What did you get?" the big question of Lent is, "What did you give up?" You may have heard about the Unitarian Universalist who didn’t know what to give up for Lent so he gave up church. The problem is that he forgot to come back when the forty days were over. I got a chuckle out of a recent political cartoon in the GLOBE. It shows George W. Bush declaiming to himself: "I’m giving up Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell for Lent." Well, in light of the recent Super Tuesday primaries, I’m giving up Bill Bradley and John McCain for Lent. The problem is they won’t be around to vote for when it’s all over, while Robertson and Falwell will still be doing their best to garner votes for good ‘ol George W.

How many of you remember the children’s exercise "Ring Around the Roses"? We would join hands in a circle and begin circling around together. As we did so we would chant together, "Ring around the roses/ Pocket full of posies/ Ashes, ashes/ We all fall down!" And we’d all fall down on the ground together and laugh. Big joke. Great fun. Only the origin of that little ditty was no joke. It was a response to the devastating plague of the late Middle Ages in Europe and England. Those who fell ill would have circular splotches of red on their bodies like a rose. They would become hot and feverish and in a few hours or days, they would all fall down dead. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

The origin of the Christian Lenten season has its roots in the Gospel traditions relating to the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The forty days relates to the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism by John the Baptist. He fasted and prayed and wrestled with the devil and his own inner demons, and returned from his ordeal strengthened in spirit and ready to begin his ministry. Both Matthew and Mark say that "angels came and ministered to him."

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, the morning after Shrove Tuesday, which in New Orleans, is a big bash or carnival, known as Mardi Gras, with much feasting, drinking, dancing, singing and celebrating, a custom brought here in 1827 by two young men who had been studying in Paris, France. The derivation of the word "carnival", incidentally, comes from an Italian word, "carnevale" which means "to put away meat."

Shrove Tuesday has also been called Pancake Day since pancakes were traditionally eaten on the eve of Lent. Originally the practice was a means of using up the milk, eggs, and fat which were not allowed to be eaten during the strict days of Lent. And so the church bell, which called people to confession on Shrove Tuesday, came to be known as the "pancake bell." A verse from Poor Robin’s Almanac for 1684 expresses the full sentiment of the occasion:

The Puritans rebelled against the external observance of pious practices not explicitly commanded in the Bible because it was felt they led to a hypocritical breaking of foolish rules and detracted from the importance of leading a moral and upright life in all the other days and seasons. I love this broadside against the breaking of Lenten fasts by a Puritan critic of a bygone era:

If you change Friday night to Saturday, April 1st, you are all invited to the "paunch cramming assembly" known as the First Parish Canvass Fellowship Dinner. Perhaps we should call it Shrove Saturday. If you have not attended you should not pass up this ample free feast which includes music and entertainment as well as an enlightened presentation of the goals of our canvass. It is the least we can do—providing you with a gormandizing paunch-cramming assembly—before we ask you to give up a portion of your wealth and substance for the cause of the church we serve. That may be the closet we will come to an external observance of Lent. What did you give up? I made a generous pledge. I gave until it hurt, and then, I gave a little more till it felt good.

As many of you already know, I grew up in the Christian Science Sunday School. Christian Scientists did not put much emphasis on the Lenten season. But they already had a year ‘round rule against the consumption of coffee, tea and alcohol, much like the Catholics used to renounce the eating of meat on Fridays. The difference was that the Catholics got to eat meat the rest of the week, while the Christian Scientists didn’t get to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine any day of the week. Christian Scientists, however, were not that strict about coffee or tea, but alcohol was a definite no-no. I remember my Aunt, who was a Christian Scientist practitioner, would have a cup of tea from time to time, only she would only dip the tea bag in the hot water once or twice, and that somehow made it okay because it was weak tea.

I think it is fair to say that Unitarian Universalists are "weak tea" practitioners of Lent if we enter into its practice at all. The practice of Lent in the Liberal Church has not had a high priority among Unitarian Universalists. We much prefer the abundance of Christmas, to know what we got or what we’re going to get, but we do not sit comfortable with Lent and Good Friday, to be asked to give up what we've got for our own good or for the good of others. But life is not all getting—it is also giving and letting go, sacrificing and sharing, dying and grieving, changing and growing, beginning again in a new cycle of love and hope, sadness and joy. The question, "What did you give up?" is reminder to all of us that everything we have is literally on loan, including our very bodies and our lives. In the end it’s "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down."

Wallowing in the ashes of death is not exactly our cup of tea, is it? We much prefer death by chocolate. That is why we have a Chocolate Auction every year on the Sunday before Valentine’s Day. Our version of Ash Wednesday would be to smudge our forehead with a dab of chocolate followed by a Hershey Kiss communion. But that does not exactly accomplish the work that Lent was instituted to practice.

The origins of Ash Wednesday are related to Jesus’ passion of suffering and death following his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The ashes, which are used to mark the forehead of Christian adherents on Ash Wednesday, are made from the previous year’s palm branches from Palm Sunday, then sprinkled with holy water, and made into a paste. It is a reminder not only of the suffering and death of the Lord, but also of our own human mortality. We all bear the mark of death and dying whether we choose to give it external representation or not. Lent helps us, as UU minister Tim Ashton, once put it, "to face the ashes." The Book of Genesis says, "Remember, you are dust. From dust you were made. And to dust shall you return."

The Lenten season, you might say, has two main components to its practice. One is "to face the ashes", to come to terms with our human mortality. The other is to face our moral and ethical failures and return to a renewal of our spiritual life. The Biblical metaphor is to wear "sackcloth and ashes", a symbolic expression of moral repentance and spiritual renewal. It is clear that as mortal and fallible human beings we are called upon to face the ashes of our human mortality and the need for moral and spiritual renewal.

My late friend and colleague from Cohasset, Ed Atkinson, once preached a sermon about Lent which he called, "Why Most Unitarians Don’t Observe Lent but Probably Should Only I’m not entirely Sure." Ed should have won a prize for the longest sermon title on record. The Unitarian objection to Lent, said Ed, "grows out of our Puritan background—
the belief that there should not be special symbols and seasons for piety, but that reverence and ethical conduct should be maintained throughout the year. It is also felt", noted Ed, "that to fast or to dwell upon death and sin may become excessively morbid or lead to exhibitionist behavior." Ed went on to argue that "there is value in setting aside special seasons for celebration and fasting. It is nice to think that we need no special time for prayer or penitence, but chances are that given no special time we may find no time at all….A general invitation to ‘drop by anytime’ is not nearly as likely to produce a visit as a specific invitation, ‘Why don’t you come to see me next Wednesday afternoon?’" Or, "See you in church on Sunday."

Hillel, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus, once said, "Separate not thyself from the congregation and its concerns, nor postpone thought for thy spirit until the day of thy death. Say not, ‘By and by, when I have leisure, I will care for my soul,’ lest perchance thou never find leisure." That’s what Ed was getting at in his still timely sermon. Tending to the needs of the spirit is not a matter of leisure, but of spiritual discipline. If you don’t take some time to grow a soul, then you will have no soul to grow.

Unitarian Universalists and religious liberals need Lent whether or not we use the term or the prescribed period of 40 days assigned to it by the Christian tradition. All of us need a time in our lives for self-reflection, meditation, moral reassessment, spiritual atunement and personal renewal, to return to a wholeness and holiness of the spirit. None of us is free from the need for self-correction and improvement, to be forgiven and to forgive others for the same shortcomings in their human nature as in ours. Whether it is Christian Lent, Muslim Ramadan, or Jewish Yom Kippur—virtually all religious traditions pay heed to the human need for repentance and renewal, to set right what needs to be righted, and to forgive the mistakes of past thoughts and deeds. Some form of self-denial is often the only way to achieve true and lasting self-fulfillment. Thomas a Kempis, the great Christian contemplative, said, "Unless you deny yourself you shall not have perfect liberty." To deny yourself is to be able to "take it or leave it" as the case may be, to let go and let God, and not be owned by the things we own.

I close with some words by the poet, Robert Herrick, from his poem:

May we keep whatever Lent we can, whether self-chosen or imposed, to the renewal and building of character and spirit, till we indeed have become sons and daughters of the Most High, and servants of the spirit of peace and love brought near. So be it. Amen.