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Octagon Soap and the Season of Lent

March 23, 2013

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 and scented with lemon grass had multiple uses.

My mother, who had a strong aversion to dirt, always kept a bar of Octagon soap close by. She expected us 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. If we made an ugly comment about another person or uttered a bad word, she washed our mouth out with the same yellow soap.

I have found that whenever I wash my hands in a public restroom, trying to dry them with an automatic dryer is annoying. Those machines never get my hands completely 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 water on your hands is embarrassing.

Meeting the public with blood on your hands is incriminating.  Pilate, the governor of Judea, washed and dried his hands 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.  No amount of washing could wipe his hands clean of the death soon to occur 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. Scripture says that he punctuated his denials with cursing.

My mother would have certainly washed out his mouth with 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 disciples were there for the foot washing – Peter, Judas, all of them. Maybe the Lord should have used Octagon soap. The scrubbing was not enough to clean up the act of Peter, Judas, or the rest of them.

As a boy I knew nothing about the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday was the day to clean out the fireplace. Lent was what we saw in the hair of cotton mill workers or what we found in our own belly buttons. For many Christians, and now for me, these days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday are set aside as a time for reflection and self-examination, a time to acknowledge our sins, repent, and seek forgiveness.  The season is a time to come clean with God.

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 hands, mouths, and feet. The purging we need is the deep, inner cleansing of our hearts.

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

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