Elsewhere, I’ve reflected on the fact that the Christian Calendar is best understood as a discipline rather than mere tradition – “Because this is the way we’ve always done it!” – and as such, there’s wisdom in its responsible practice. Specifically, practicing the Calendar asks us to exercise spiritual muscles we typically aren’t inclined to use. For me, this is perhaps most evident in the observance of Ash Wednesday (which is this Wednesday).
Kicking off the season of Lent, Ash Wednesday asks us to dwell on our own mortality. Across centuries, continents, and theological tradition Christians begin their preparation for Easter by marking their heads with ash and confessing, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We begin preparing for the celebration of Christ’s victory over death by acknowledging and reflecting on the problem of death. In a culture that treats death as taboo, this is important: if I’ve learned anything, it is often the taboo things that exert the most influence over us.
That is, the specter of death drives an enormous amount of what is painful and broken in our society. And, against our inclinations to push death away at every turn, Ash Wednesday asks us to drag it into the light, dealing both with the ways death shapes us and with the ways that Jesus has set us free from slavery to it.
This is distinctly unpleasant — but like any discipline, it is necessary.