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Lent and Octagon Soap

March 3, 2007


Octagon soap used to be indispensable in Southern households. From scrubbing dirty work clothes to lathering hands that had come in contact with poison ivy, the yellow lye soap with eight sides, scented with lemon grass, had multiple uses.

My mother had a strong aversion to dirt. She always kept a bar of Octagon soap close by. We were expected to wash our hands before meals whether they needed it or not. We were allowed to go barefooted after the first day of May, but that required additional foot washing.

My mother believed that the eight-sided soap was best. If we said something ugly about another person or uttered a bad word, she washed our mouth out with the same yellow soap.                                                                                                                     

My friend Calvin Knight was traveling on Interstate 40 with his aging mother. They stopped at a rest area in North Carolina somewhere between Statesville and Asheville.  Mrs. Knight went into the ladies room. She was gone much too long.  The rest area was nearly deserted, and Calvin became concerned for his elderly mother. 

He knocked on the door of the ladies room, calling, “Mother, are you alright?”

Mrs. Knight responded in a frustrated voice, “Calvin can you please help me?”

Certain that no one but his mother was in the ladies room, Calvin entered to find Mrs. Knight frantically trying to turn off the automatic hand drying machine.  “Calvin, I have pushed, pulled, twisted, and turned this knob everyway I know how, and for the life of me, I can’t get this machine to turn off.”

Those automatic hand dryers are annoying, mostly because they don’t ever get your hands quite dry.  Have you ever exited a restroom after using one of those machines, only to meet someone who wanted to shake hands?  Meeting the public with wet hands is embarrassing.

Meeting the public with blood on your hands is incriminating.  That was Pilate’s problem.  The governor of Judea washed his hands and dried them in public attempting to rid himself of any responsibility for the death of Jesus.

Scripture records, “Pilate … took water and washed his hands before the crowd saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood…’” (Matthew 27:24)  Nice try, Governor. Even Octagon soap would not have washed away his guilt.  There was no way to wipe his hands clean of the death that was soon to take place on Golgotha, the place of the skull. 

Simon Peter made a bold vow on the night of Passover. “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” (Luke 22:33)

By dawn the next morning when the rooster crowed in downtown Jerusalem, Peter had asserted three times that he didn’t even know Jesus. The scripture says that he punctuated his denials with cursing. My mother would have washed his mouth out with yellow soap.

Before the Last Supper on the night he was betrayed, the gospel says that Jesus, “poured water in a basin and began to wash his disciples feet…” (John 13:5) All twelve were there for the foot washing – Peter, Judas, all of them. Maybe the Lord should have used Octagon soap to wash the disciples feet. The scrubbing was not enough to clean up the act of Peter or Judas or the rest of them.

The season of Lent is about coming clean – repenting of our sin and receiving forgiveness. Have you tried to wash your hands of responsibility like Pilate?  Have you denied Jesus like Simon Peter?  Have you betrayed the Lord like Judas? The cleansing of Lent is not only about feet, hands, and mouths. The purging we need is the deep inner cleansing of our hearts.

David put it well, “Create within me a clean heart, O God.” (Psalm 51: 10) The one who died for our sins offers forgiveness and pardon. If we confess and receive, by faith, his mercy, and his grace, then our hearts will be clean. That cleansing is beyond the reach of Octagon soap.

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2007

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