Super Tuesday Meets Ash Wednesday:
First Sunday in Lent 2008

For Sunday February 10, 2008

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Genesis 2:15–17, 3:1–7

Psalm 32

Romans 5:12–19

Matthew 4:1–11

Mitt Romney.
Mitt Romney.

           I don't think of myself a political junkie, but I sure have wasted a lot of time following the presidential campaigns. I'll read the same stories on several internet websites. I'll glance at a newspaper when I walk to the gym. On the treadmill I'll squint at the silent televisions as the same stories scroll across the bottom of their flat screens. Then at night — I hate to admit this — I'll sometimes eat dinner in front of television and watch the same stories for the sixth or seventh time. I must be an advertiser's dream.

            And so a coincidence of the calendar caught my attention. This week, Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday") and so-called "Super Tuesday" both fall on February 5. While millions of revelers from Rio to New Orleans will indulge in raucous parties, tens of millions of Americans will chase the holy grail of politics.

           But every night has a morning, and in the Christian calendar Ash Wednesday follows Super Tuesday. Just as Israel spent forty years in the wilderness, and Jesus spent forty days in the desert fasting, praying, and battling satan (Matthew 4:1–2), since the fourth century Christians have set aside the forty days before Easter as a time for repentance, reflection and self-examination.

           Ash Wednesday gets its name from the liturgical rite of dabbing ashes on the forehead of worshipers.The ashes remind us of our mortality. In words that are often read at Lent, God spoke to Adam in Genesis 3:19, “for dust you are, and to dust you will return.” In the Bible ashes are also a symbol of mourning (2 Samuel 13:19, Jeremiah 6:26), a stark metaphor that even Jesus invokes (Matthew 11:21). Ashes also signify an inner attitude of repentance, humility, self-denial, and abstinence.

Hillary Clinton.
Hillary Clinton.

           In addition to ashes, some Christians will give up meat, chocolate, or alcohol for the forty days of Lent. Other people fast. Still others perform acts of mercy or contrition. In a culture that glorifies excess and indulgence, hubris and bravado, Wednesday's ashes signify an outrageously counter-cultural act of humility. Lent strikes me as one of the most brutally realistic liturgical seasons of the year.

           Creativity and imagination can broaden our Lenten disciplines. I once read about a scholar whose spiritual adviser urged him to give up reading. As this scholar told the story, that was the perfect prescription for him and his addiction to books, reading and ideas. Or again, it's easy to imagine an asceticism of time in which we put aside our own to-do lists in order to place the interests of others before our own.

           I wonder if I could renounce politics for a mere forty days. There would be eminently Christian reasons to do so.

           In the Gospel this week the glory of "all the kingdoms of the world" which Jesus is offered is nothing less than a satanic temptation. It's no coincidence that when satan tempted him with political power, he demanded that Jesus "bow down and worship" (Matthew 4:8–9). In our day and age, politics are a type of worship that demands deep sacrifices, unquestioning obedience, and unwavering allegiance from its adherents. But Jesus never took the bait. Far from it. Throughout his life Jesus challenged the political status quo with a subversive alternative.

           When Jesus was born Mary announced that God would "bring down rulers from their thrones" (Luke 1:52), which is why the Guatemalan government once banned the public reading of her Magnificat. His first public words proclaimed a new and different type of kingdom, reign, or rule (Mark 1:15). In one of the most dramatic encounters in all of Scripture, at the end of his life when Pontius Pilate interrogated Jesus in the praetorium, he pressed three charges of political sedition: "We found this fellow subverting the nation, opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King" (Luke 23:1–2). Back outside, the mob hounded Pilate: "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar." They got that right.

John McCain.
John McCain.

           No friend of Caesar. That phrase characterizes the earliest Christians.

           Last Sunday in church a friend gave me a book called The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, by Robert Louis Wilken, a University of Virginia historian. I couldn't put the book down. Wilken describes a time when Christians held a deeply ambivalent attitude toward political power and the state. And the suspicions were mutual; he also documents the pronounced antipathy that the cultured elites of Rome harbored toward Christians.

           For about a hundred years after Jesus, says Wilken, Christians were invisible to most people in the Roman empire. But across the decades they developed a reputation as an anti-social community that existed on the margins of the state. In explaining why Nero persecuted Christians so mercilessly, the Roman historian Tacitus called them "haters of mankind." People viewed them as fanatical, seditious, obstinate, and defiant. Another early critic complained, "You do not go to our shows, you take no part in our processions, you are not present at our public banquets, you shrink in horror from our sacred games" (Minucius Felix, Octavius 12).

           The early believers repudiated long-held Roman religious traditions. They refused military service, which is to say that they refused to protect the state. Their indifference to civic affairs seemed to undermine society. How could they be trustworthy citizens? The Christians, another critic summarized, "do not understand their civic duty."

           The alternative community that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not (Borg, Crossan). Imagine if God ruled the nations instead of Bush, Sarkozy, Musharref, Putin, Kim Jong-il, or Ahmadinejad. Every aspect of personal and communal life would experience a radical reversal. The political, economic, and social subversions would be almost endless — peace-making instead of war mongering, liberation not exploitation, sacrifice rather than subjugation, mercy not vengeance, care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful, generosity instead of greed, truth instead of propagandistic lies, humility rather than hubris, and embrace rather than exclusion. The ancient Hebrews had a marvelous word for this, shalom, or human well-being.

Barack Obama.
Barack Obama.

           About twenty years ago, a professor of mine who had renounced his political activism (which was considerable) explained that the most politically subversive thing he could do was to pray. For the longest time I wondered what he meant, but then the light went off. The Lord's Prayer might be the most radical of all political manifestos: "Lord, may your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

           People who live and pray like that have an agenda that's different than Caesar's, whether Republican or Democrat, whether capitalist, socialist or communist, whether democratic or theocratic. With Super Bowl Sunday, Mardi Gras, and Super Tuesday now in the rear view mirror, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent offer Christians an opportunity to think about politics, and all of life, in a radically different light.

For further reflection:

* For Lenten reading, see Stanley Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ; Meditations on the Seven Last Words (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004), 108pp.
* Consider the poem "Ash Wednesday" by TS Eliot (1888–1965), perhaps the greatest poet of modern times. In 1948 he won the Nobel Prize for poetry. Here is the first stanza of “Ash Wednesday” (1930).

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgment not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

From TS Eliot, Collected Poems 1909–1962 (London: Faber and Faber, 1963).

Image credits: (1); (2) The Sydney Morning Herald; (3) Republican Party of Brevard County; (4)