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A Modest Lent

By Ray Waddle

I received ashes on the forehead from the minister last week – at the beginning of Lent – as a sign of mortality and dedication to the Easter story.

This presented a small dilemma: leave the ashes on all day, or wash them off? The minister laid the black ash on thick this year, smearing it across the forehead in the shape of the cross. It seemed ungrateful to scrub it off. On the other hand, it looked conspicuous, drawing attention to itself.

Engrossed by the pros and cons of this, I was already betraying the spirit of the season, caught up not in Jesus’ life but in my own little theater of appearances.

That settled it. I washed the ash off immediately. Better to end the speculation than feel self-conscious about it.

Lent’s wise counsel each year is to invite people to seize the faith in ways that lift us out of ourselves, join the bigger world, pray for it, add something to it, and stop fretting so much, which only magnifies the self-centeredness. Adopt a little modesty about the endless preoccupations of the self.

It’s not easy. We’re living in a new golden age of egotism, individualism, the imperial self. “Our mission is you!” the gym brochure tells me. “There’s only one you!” the supermarket banner informs me, as if our egos are secretly so fragile that we need constant reassurance about how important we are.

Well, the glorified self is fragile. It’s forever getting things wrong, flying off the handle based on faulty information and poor judgment. Centuries of experience and tradition have a name for it: the condition of sin. Under the circumstances, modesty is a sound policy.

This year I’m not embarking on a big Lenten spiritual travel odyssey (too expensive) or spinning a narrative of fasting that soon collapses under its own weight (too self-dramatizing).

My hope for this Lent is modest by comparison: Worry a little less, eat a little less, buy fewer things, remember there’s a bigger world at stake than my little patch of it. Wake up to it for clues to God’s purposes and desires.

I washed the ash away last week, but I can still feel its imprint, a reminder to be wary of flawed assumptions and irrational overreach. It’s also a sign of promise that an Easter sunrise will soon appear, giving the restless self something larger to believe in.

– Ray Waddle is a columnist, author and the editor of Reflections magazine, published by Yale Divinity School. He lives in Bethel, CT.




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