Wednesday, February 25, 2009

From The Forehead To The Frontal Lobe

Ashes ready for young foreheads at St. John's School

Some Christian denominations crease their unobscured brows at the mention of the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, pointing to a passage in Matthew's gospel in which Jesus cautions his friends against "practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them" (6:1). We read that verse in the Bible, these faithful skeptics ask us, and nonetheless walk around one winter's day with a big black cross on our foreheads?

Deepening the paradox is that most ash-imposing Christians will hear that very passage in church today. Each year a different solution to the puzzle comes to mind. It seems to me that the cross on the forehead should be an outward symbol of Lenten resolves which we commit to keep in the forefront of our hearts and minds. In addition to the carbon scoring on the forehead, do we have something new cooking in our frontal lobes?

My first Lenten resolve (as my family mourns the death yesterday of my stepfather, Dr. Richard J. Lescoe, after a long struggle against Parkinson's Disease) is to be especially mindful and less fearful of the cycle of death, life, and rebirth (and also of fear and peace, sadness and joy, love and alienation) we experience in our lives and our Christian walk.

Second, did you see the way official Washington couldn't keep its hands off the President last night as he made his way down the aisle before the SOTU? The man was poked and stroked, grasped and grabbed. Lousy with pride and ambition, fear and anxiety though our politics may be, they're fundamentally rooted in relationships. Christians would say politics are incarnational. Our religion should be as well. Off the e-mail and text-messaging, people of God, and back to Starbucks and, at the very least, the telephone. May our wonderful St. John's preschoolers, shown learning about Ash Wednesday from chaplain Patti Peebles, be masters of the modern communications at their disposal rather than their slaves, as we too often seem to be. Intertwined digits are better than digital any day.

In moments of anxiety and emotional chaos, in transition and illness, in mourning, or in anger over the way loved ones are being treated, our relationship with God often comes in second. Leaving one job and immersing myself full time in another, which proved more complicated than I'd expected, I noticed I was talking to myself more than Jesus. So my third Lenten resolve is to pray more. At St. John's, in the corner of the Chrysostom Chapel, we've just installed votive candles. I'll be spending plenty of time there this sacred season. I promise the Altar Guild not to get ashes onto the purple fabric of the beautiful prie-deu today, but I do look forward to the day that it looks a little less new and a lot more prayed-with.

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