Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the day that Catholics and other Christians set aside to begin a season of reflection, repentance, and preparation for Easter, the holiest feast on the Christian calendar. Catholics and some “high-church” Protestants, especially Lutherans and Episcopalians, mark Ash Wednesday with a smudge of ashes of their foreheads, compelling them to don a public marker on their faith and to be a reminder to others of our shared mortality and need for a savior.
You might have seen some well-known Catholic politicos sporting ashes yesterday. Vice President Joe Biden regularly receives an imposition of ashes, leading to a memorably bizarre exchange between two BBC reporters who suspected the burned palms were a bruise or stray makeup. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said he would not attend Ash Wednesday services, while Rick Santorum said he planned to receive ashes. Santorum campaigned with ashes on his forehead, but he did not sport a smudge in last night’s debate.
I usually receive ashes at Washington DC’s Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle, a vast structure adorned with beautiful mosaics mere blocks from the White House. Masses throughout the day, including the noon Mass celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, are standing room only, and it’s not uncommon to see some well known policy wonks, journalists, and other DC insiders receiving ashes. There is something particularly edifying in worshipping alongside the connected and powerful as we collectivity seek humility and acknowledge our own mortality.
The Christian faith is one of great paradox: God becomes human, the poor become rich, and the weak triumph over the powerful. A few years ago on Ash Wednesday, the general manager of one of New York’s most exclusive hotels had some choice words for a bellhop who had received ashes before his shift, resulting in a swift termination. From the New York Post:
“Wipe that f—–g s–t off your face,” managing director Niklaus Leuenberger told a bell captain at the New York Palace Hotel on Feb. 25, sources said.
The unholy ultimatum ended up costing Leuenberger his job at the Palace, a swanky 55-story tower on Madison Ave. across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“As of Monday, March 23, Leuenberger is no longer employed by the New York Palace,” hotel spokeswoman Teresa Delaney told the Daily News Tuesday.
The incident was deemed so severe, Christopher Cowdray, head of the London-based Dorchester Collection, which owns the Palace, flew here to hand Leuenberger the pink slip.
For the past several months, I’ve followed with increasing dismay the degradation of the political process here, notably in the GOP presidential contest, though the systemic rot will surely continue well into the general election with both sides embracing miserable tactics that mislead, misinform, and tear down their opponents and in the process our level of political discourse.
Already this year we’ve seen candidates distort their opponents’ records; question President Obama’s Christian faith and call philosophical opponents demonic; and exploit a sluggish economy with claims of class warfare. Obama is not immune; he fully embraced negative advertising in 2008 against chief rival Hillary Clinton and then in the general election, and his recent decision to forego a promise not to use Super PACs ensures that more is on tap for 2012.
Does it have to be this way, and can the Lenten season be an antidote to this political nastiness?
I’m not suggesting a uniquely Christian observance infiltrate our political process. Secular government has worked pretty well here for the past couple of centuries and there is no reason to throw that out. But the themes of Lent have broad application to Christians, people of other faiths, and the non-religious. The New York Times published a piece on Sunday that asked:
But what if this were really a season for renunciation, even for non-believers? In the ancestral stories of nearly every culture, wisdom comes from the bare places, from deserts and dry mountains. The season of Lent itself is based on a “wilderness” — the one in which Jesus fasted for 40 days after his baptism.
It’s common to read this story and others like it as though the wilderness were little more than a blank backdrop. I read it a different way. Wisdom comes from the bare places because they force humility upon us. In these Lenten places, where life thrives on almost nothing, we can see clearly how large a shadow modern life and consumption cast upon the earth. In secular terms, Lent seems the opposite of Christmas — “What are you giving up?” versus “What are you getting?” Perhaps it might be a season in which to learn the value of abstention and to consider how to let the bare places flourish, or even simply to exist.
What if the presidential candidates embraced humility, doubt, uncertainty, and a willingness to listen and reflect, attributes I associate with the Lenten season? Power and domination lie at the heart of the modern political process. Seemingly nothing is out of bounds in presidential politics, and an injection of Lenten spirituality into the conversation may reign in the craziness a bit.