Ash Wednesday

It’s that time again.  In past years, I have rebelliously attended various Christian trinitarian services — usually Roman Catholic — in the morning, to display my smudge before the UU heathen (non Christians) all day long.  One beneficial side effect of this wandering was hearing the most bizarre homily I have ever experienced for any occasion.  It was a Roman Catholic priest doing a tremendous exposition on William Faulkner in a public housing parish.  As I sat there, having had many highly educated explanations of Faulkner, and still not understanding either his literature or that homily, I mostly wondered how my fellow worshipers were doing.

But not today.  This year, I am holding before me the memory of my year in Singapore (1981-82) and the fourth week of Ramadan with my Muslim friends.  As the month of fasting wore on, they got more and more tired.  They were also isolated, forced to sit, ever more quietly, at their desks, avoiding the midday equatorial sun, and any unnecessary exertion.  I often chose to sit in with them, not eating in front of them, of course, but at least trying to lessen their social isolation. It was a leveler, as well, for regardless of their station in our office hierarchy, the hunger and resting was the same for them all.

And as their exhaustion became palpable in those office refuges, Idh assumed a different character as well.   Although they shopped and looked forward to new clothes, lavish food, decorating their houses, their plans vibrated with an undercurrent of resurrection.  They would be eating again, going out for lunch, mixing in the larger society.  Strength would return with a week of replenishing nourishment.  Neither our Christmas nor Easter has that vibration any more, unless you keep the old Lent, which so few of us do.

Such fasts have so often been derided as an enemy of liberalism, because they cut self-empowerment.  And no one has taken a bigger beating on the politically repressive usefulness of ritual than the ummah, that is, the Muslim community.

But this year, it is they who have reminded us that without practicing sacrifice among our rituals, we will not be prepared when the moment for high risk arrives.  Without practicing sacrifice among our rituals, we will have no meaning to ascribe when death claims victims in pursuit of a higher cause.  Without practicing sacrifice among our rituals, in short, we lose the very self-empowerment we claim the sacrifice eviscerates.

I’m still not quite sure what I’m giving up for Lent, mostly because my life as a caregiver seems a pretty constant sacrifice in itself.  But I do know that I can only do this because I remember all those years at King’s Chapel, washing each other’s work-tired feet on Maundy Thursday, trudging into the sanctuary for all five services of Triduum — and even gathering at the Parker House Hotel, those several years ago, to reaffirm our congregational right to choose and evaluate our minister (over and against the Trustees, who own the property and endowment).

So this year, you can’t see my Ash Wednesday.  It’s a picture before me — not a sign before you — of tired, hungry professionals, counting the days until their fast would end.  Faithfully shoring each other up, regardless of rank or gender, in the midst of a multifaith society.

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