Purple Crayons: A Thought on Ash Wednesday
In my third grade Sunday School class, back around 1966 or 7, we colored a big wheel of a paper calendar drawn as a sundial with the different colors of the church year—green, white, red, purple. (Blue wasn't being used for the weeks before Christmas yet.) We learned when Advent falls (four weeks before Christmas), that Christmas is actually two weeks long (12 days from Christmas to Epiphany), that Lent is 40 days (excluding Sundays), about Ordinary time and where to look on the calendar to find various liturgical "feasts" like Pentecost, Easter, All Saints Day (Reformation Sunday for the more Protestant among us), or Super Bowl Sunday (okay, not Super Bowl Sunday). I'm sure that it was a noble, if silly, attempt to enculturate us into the church--to understand its rhythms, appreciate changes through the year, and know that what happens in church shapes how we make life. I was proud that I knew what Whitsuntide was (though the season of Whitsuntide was abandoned by the wider church a few years later). It felt like secret knowledge in a world getting more and more secular. But how much it inculcated a living faith, I'm not really sure. I don't want to rule it out, but at the same time I certainly don't want to confuse my crayola covered liturgical sundial with profound Christian education.
And today it's even harder. For as much as it was already beginning then, it was not long before lingering cultural vestiges of religious rhythm were either let go or absorbed into a stronger commercial rhythm. Advent is a shopping season, still referencing Christmas but exhibiting little of what Advent has been in Christian history. Blue laws are gone, and even a temporarily negotiated settlement to leave Sunday mornings free for Christians to worship has pretty much disappeared. I doubt many school cafeterias accommodate students of Roman Catholic or other ecclesial communities who might fast from meat other than fish on Lenten Fridays. Stephen Colbert will have ashes on his forehead for his show tonight, observant Catholic that he is on Ash Wednesday, but for many his ashes will be taken to be dry humor rather than the unremarkable expression of identity it probably is for the comedian himself. I remember seeing a calendar on MTV some years ago, with graphics marking various days. On Ash Wednesday one saw an animation coming off the calendar of a haggard old person with a cigarette, coughing and letting the ashes drop from the end onto her clothes: "Ash Wednesday" it said. It was treated like a fleeting cultural memory to be used for effect, not the marker of a rhythm of life to respect.
And so it's Ash Wednesday as I write this. It's the beginning of what many Christians call Lent, which is (quoting my third grade discovery) the 40 days, minus Sundays, before Easter. It's meant to be a time of quiet, of self-reflection and confession of failing, of renunciation and sacrifice in hopes of receiving greater clarity on life and truer abundance, of family and church and learning. It's meant to be a long breathing in to anticipate the great breathing out of Eastertime.
Leaves me wondering how to enculturate a third grader into all of that today? Crayons and construction paper weren't great in 1966, but they would seem actually counterproductive in 2013. Maybe it takes living sundials today—folks who know what time it is in living life and who can teach Lent not by wearing purple on Sundays but by demonstrating in hard and worthy ways how self-reflection, apology and reconciliation, sacrifice for a greater good, fasting from over stimulation (of food, of technology, of activity, of accumulation, of distraction) can help us receive new focus and new clarity. Maybe we need to talk about it all more, tell our stories more, share our struggles more, and admit together that it's not easy to live the rhythms of a Christian life in the world we're creating.
Maybe our third graders simply need to hear us admit it, and to say to them even as we say to each other that we wish we could live otherwise than how we do.
That'll be a start. A good way to enter Lent.