Fat Tuesday. Use it up! (The fat in the house, that is) Get it out! (Anything that might have pleasure attached to it) Have a party! Mardi Gras! We get rid of temptation by indulging in temptation. We blow it out in one wild night on the town, and then submit to the ashes and the destitution of Lent. Forty days of penitence and depravation. So that we will be deserving of Easter and the Blessed Event of Resurrection, and be able to partake of the Body and Blood, broken and spilt, for us.
Whose idea was all this? Who thought THIS up? How would you start a cultural practice of this magnitude? How would you get all these people to go along with you? You’d have to have some leverage. You’d have to have a monopoly on the minds of the people. You’d have to be able to order up a feast and a fast and have everyone jump to comply. You’d have to be Somebody. And, you would have to have a propaganda, excuse me, public relations, machine at your disposal. Joe Dufus couldn’t do it. Unless he were Pope Joe. Or, at least a Bishop.
It takes a Pope, sometimes, to bring some things off. Or, at least a Bishop. It takes the power of the church (when the church had power) to proclaim and declare. The practice of fasting for the forty days prior to Easter was unknown before the time of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, who lived between 296 and 373 CE, and Ambrose who was Bishop of Milan between 374 and 397. And, following them, it becomes increasingly popular until, by now, it is practically everywhere.
It takes a Pope, sometimes, to bring some things off. Or, at least a Bishop. It takes the power of the church (when the church had power) to proclaim and declare. But, there is more to it than that. Vatican II had a Pope (John XXIII) and the power of the church behind it. Vatican II was the most far-reaching, revolutionary, progressive, indication of hope, and compassion, and vitality, and justice the church has ever made (including the Reformation). We’re still celebrating Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. In less than a generation Vatican II has dissipated and disappeared. What’s the difference? Dig into that, if you dare.
If you dig into that, you will find the heart of what Lent would exorcise, of what we need to repent, of what penitence and preparation for resurrection are all about. You’ll find exactly why we don’t have what it takes to be raised from the dead.
Vatican II asked hard things of us. Compassion. Justice. Things like that. Ug. You know what I mean. Let’s just party hearty, don the ashes, and fast for forty days. It’s so much easier to make the gestures, and assume the postures, and play the roles, and speak the language. It’s hell, actually living in ways that do justice, and love mercy, and humbly, relentlessly, evidence the presence of God in the world. It’s hell, doing what’s right over time. So much better just to strike a pose.
If you are going to get the people behind you, and keep them with you, don’t ask them to do what’s right over time. Give them a party and ask them to make a symbolic gesture as a token of their sinfulness, which will be forgiven (again and again), and conveniently laid aside by the power of resurrection and new life, which is never, ever, actually new, or even any different, at the level of the heart, from the life they ever lived (you know, the life that is sinful and will have to be forgiven again next year about this time). Give them a ritualistic cycle, and don’t expect them to change.
Give them the ashes, and the chants of confession and praise and thanksgiving. Let them castigate themselves for forty days, and then declare them to be forgiven, and raised from the dead. But, don’t actually expect them to rise from the dead. Don’t ask them to change. Don’t tell them to stop the whining and live with justice and compassion for all people everywhere. Don’t tell them to allow homosexuals to have the full rights of personhood. Tell them to feed the hungry, if you like, but don’t tell them to change the structures and the systems that keep hunger in place, that make homelessness an ever-present reality, that guarantee the poor will be with us always. Don’t tell them to stop killing their enemies in the name of their own safety and security and peace of mind. Don’t tell them to be as vulnerable and helpless, and as at-one with their neighbor, as the one they call Lord. Don’t mess with their lives. They will turn on you in an instant, and turn away from you forever.
Vatican II has evaporated like the morning mist, vanished like the phantom for good that it was. And, we are still holding our Mardi Gras parades, and our Ash Wednesday services, and counting mournfully the forty full days of Lent. Well. Whose side are we on?
That’s the only question. Whose side are we on? And, you’re thinking this is where I bring God into the discussion, aren’t you? Yes, you are! Don’t deny it! That’s how these things always go. Asking whose side are we on is always used to highlight the disparity between ourselves and God, and to get into the meat of the matter which is why we should be more godly. And, you’re all getting geared up for that. You know what’s coming, and you’re thinking that you only have about ten minutes of it before I’m done with you, and surely you can take that much, but some of you are measuring the distance between yourselves and the nearest door, just in case I drone on, and you reach your maximum tolerance level, and have to leave, when you’ve heard about as much about how you ought to be more godly as you can stand. I hate to disappoint you, but, you should have seen that coming, too.
The choice, gentle people, is not between ourselves and God, as in the Garden of Eden, but between ourselves and our other selves. This is the dichotomy between Fat Tuesday and Vatican II. Between striking a pose and forming a life. Between reading the script (And, Julie and I talked about thrusting a Lenten Litany into your hands. You know, one of those mournful, penitent things, wherein we confess our evil nature and profess gratitude for the grace that loves us anyway, and promises Easter morning to those who are properly prepared. But, it’s just too scripted. It’s too easy to read the words. Besides, how gracious is grace that withholds the blessing from those who aren’t properly prepared? But, back to the point)—the point is that the dichotomy is between reading the script as those who know what they are supposed to say and living the life we know—on some level—must be lived. The choice is between ourselves and our other selves.
Our other selves are always taking the whole into account. We, however, have eyes only for ourselves. We think it is about us, about our part, our piece of the pie, what’s in it for us. Our other selves know that what’s really in it for us is identification with the whole. When we are at-one with one another we have what we seek. But, we think it’s about taking care of ourselves first and then, with spare time, and extra money, and left over compassion we can do something for others. “Those who seek their own life, their own good, their own boon,” says the ancient wisdom, “will lose it. While those who lose their life in the service of a good which is greater than their own, personal, good, will find it.”
It isn’t about living in the service of the self or not living in the service of the self. It is about knowing what constitutes the true service of the self. It is about being self-serving in the surest, truest, deepest, best sense of the term. Our other selves know what we need to be whole, complete, fulfilled, and at peace, but, we have eyes for other things. We like the things that sparkle and shine. We like the glass beads and mirrors and the fruit on the forbidden tree. It is forbidden because it is not what we need. We don’t care what we need. We know what we want.
We want what we have no business having. The division is within. We want to say we have sinned, and go on with our lives. We want to confess our sin, but we don’t want to do anything about it. We want to serve the good that is good for us and give $20 in support of the common good of all. It’s all right there in the discrepancy between Fat Tuesday and Vatican II. We want to be credited with feeling bad about how things are without having to go to the trouble of changing, of transforming, how things are. We are kidding ourselves, of course, and we know it. Our other selves know it. They know when we live with integrity, and transparency, and authenticity, and up-front-ness, and when we live for the personal gains at the expense of the truly good.
The truly good asks a lot of us. Vatican II was about the transformation of the world. The transformation of the world requires the relentless pursuit of the truly good over time forever. Justice is episodic, not institutional. You can’t devise a system that will do justice, make it operational, and go on about your life. You don’t have a life in the service of justice! You live to serve justice. That is your life. Do you begin to see the problem with Vatican II? Do you begin to see why Fat Tuesday is to be so much preferred? With Fat Tuesday, we can have any life we want, and say we are ashamed for not doing better, and be forgiven for it every year, and raised from the dead every Easter, to go right on with the way we are living, unchanged and unchanging, world without end, amen.
We could, of course, take Lent seriously, and drop the self depreciating act, and actually live toward the good our other selves know to be good. It’s a painful choice, to be sure, and so the ancient wisdom talks about the way of the truly good being like bearing a cross. It is very much the way of personal pain. It’s the pain of realization. It’s the pain of knowing what our other selves know. It’s the pain of seeing the degree to which civilization, which we invented as a buffer between ourselves and the Void, champions the good of the few at the expense of the many. It’s the pain of waking up and living in the service of a good that is greater than our own good. It’s the pain of doing what can be done where we are to make things more equitable, more just, more compassionate, less violent, less dismissive and more aware than they are. It’s the pain of keeping alive the spirit of Vatican II, when it would be so much easier to give up chocolate for forty days and let it go at that.