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MARCH, ASH WEDNESDAY, AND LENT

March 1, 2017

March is a tumultuous month, a restless time.  Many of our familiar clichés and quotes about March confirm the unsettled nature of this, the third month on our calendars.   The time-honored adage, “in like a lion, and out like a lamb,” describes the dramatic changes we expect.  “As wild as a March hare” implies that even rabbits are more impetuous during these thirty-one days.

In his play, Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare depicts a prophetic encounter. The ominous dialogue is an exchange between the Emperor and a soothsayer in the crowd.

Sensing a threat, Caesar pauses to challenge, “Who is it in the press that calls on me? I hear a tongue shriller than all the music cry ‘Caesar!’  Speak! Caesar is turn’d to hear.”

The soothsayer warns, “Beware the Ides of March.”

Basketball has the sports spotlight for the month of March.  The National Collegiate Athletic Association showcases conference tournaments, closely followed by the Big Dance, the NCAA basketball tournament.   The top sixty-eight teams in the country compete for the national championship.  All of this basketball has surely exceeded the wildest imagination of Dr. James Naismith, the man who invented the game by attaching a peach basket to the wall of a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891.   The roundball frenzy has become, indeed, March Madness.

In March, cabin fever gives way to spring fever.  Usually, the winter has kept us more confined than we like.  Much of January and February are spent on the inside looking out.  Winter has not been nearly as harsh this year as in the past. All around are signs of the hope of spring.  Flowers and trees are blooming earlier than expected. School children fly kites in open fields. Golf courses are busy with activity.

Early-blooming Lenten roses nod in the cool March breeze. New shoots and sprouts pierce the earth.  Early bulbs of jonquils, daffodils, and crocus join pansies and violas to add bright colors to an otherwise drab landscape.  Yoshino cherries, crabapples, cup and saucer magnolias, Bradford pears, redbuds, and dogwoods, each in turn, are breaking forth into bloom.  Birds of every feather pair and prepare for spring nesting: robins in a honeysuckle vine, mockingbirds in a pyracantha bush, wrens in a hanging basket, and brilliant bluebirds in a cedar box.  In March, all of creation yearns for new life.

Emily Dickinson wrote in one of her sonnets,

A little Madness in the Spring

Is wholesome even for a King.

Spring-cleaning is wholesome madness.  Most homemakers have a moment, often in the spring, when they are seized by an impulse to clean.  Spring-cleaning goes much deeper than ordinary routine cleaning.

There is, however, another perspective. This year, Ash Wednesday is March 1 and marks the beginning of the season of Lent.

When I was a boy and a member of a Baptist church, the observance of Ash Wednesday was a strange custom to me. I though it must be the day to clean out the fireplace after the winter. When friends came to school with a cross of ashes on their foreheads I was curious, but thought asking would be rude.

The season of Lent was also an unknown concept to me. Because I was unfamiliar with the word, I thought it was the season of lint, maybe a time to clean out the vent on the clothes dryer. I heard my friends talking about giving up something for Lent. Boy, was I confused!

In our sophomore year of college, Clare and I started dating each other. She was a Methodist. I had a lot to learn, and she had a lot to teach me. She tried to teach me how to dance, but, alas, I was dancing impaired. She did teach me about Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. I warmed to these ancient Christian practices that were so new to me.

Eventually, I joined other Christians at the altar on Ash Wednesday for the imposition of ashes. I began to see Lent as a time for spiritual renewal. The practice of giving something up for Lent was a challenging concept. It is based on the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism, a time of prayer and fasting.

One year I gave up nothing at all for Lent. Then, almost as an afterthought, I decided that I needed a post-Lenten fast. I went on a media fast – – no television, no radio, no newspapers, no magazines. This occurred before the introduction of cell phones and home computers. Clare would want me to add that this was not only after Lent, but it was also after the NCAA basketball tournament.

When the media fast was over and I turned the television and radio back on and started reading news again, almost nothing had changed in the world. Other than the Stanley Cup champions of the National Hockey League, a few robberies, and traffic problems, I had missed very little. I had gained immensely from my reading.

Several years ago, I decided to give up Facebook for Lent. Good decision! Though I enjoy hearing news about friends, I really don’t care what you had for breakfast. I realized what a poor substitute for actually human interaction Facebook has become.

Over the years I have heard the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” many times. The answers are sometimes astounding. I have known people who gave up chocolate, coffee, all desserts, and other good things to eat. One man even said he had decided to give up watermelon for Lent. We all know how good watermelon is in March!

By observing Lent, the individual imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days at the beginning of His ministry. It is a time of spiritual discipline.

The idea of giving up something for Lent is derived from the customary practice of abstaining from meat.  It is not a time of physical starvation or dehydration.  It is rather a time of self-denial and self-emptying.

Giving up something for Lent has sometimes been trivialized. Is deciding not to eat calves’ liver or brussel sprouts really a sacrifice?  Will giving up coffee or chocolate help you become a better person?

Lent seems to always come just in the nick of time to restore hope to a world in despair, to restore peace to the turbulent earth, to restore saneness to the madness of March, and to bring healing to the fevered, frantic pace of spring. As we greet March, we celebrate Lent!

I have thought about the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?”

I have a suggestion that is not original. In fact, it comes straight from the writing of the Apostle Paul. In this particular year, in this specific season of Lent, all who are Christians need to relinquish these things as instructed by scripture.

“Give up all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.” (Ephesians 4:31)

This is what I intend to give up for Lent. I hope you will consider joining me. Even if you do not observe Lent, even if you are not a Christian, we all would do well to give up bitterness, hate, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice. As Paul points out, these must be replaced by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) If we can be disciplined enough to make that change for forty days, we might do it longer, even for a lifetime. And if we do that, the world will certainly be a better place for all of God’s children.

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