How to Celebrate Sorrow
By Jane Tawel
February 26, 2017
Wednesday, March 1 will be one of my favorite days in the year. It is Ash Wednesday, a day where some of us who believe in Jehovah, the God of Israel, the God of The Christ, begin forty days of penitence. The Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah. (Note to self: The Muslims also celebrate these same days of repentance.) At the end of these various religious days of repentance, there is a big celebration: we call it, Easter or Resurrection Sunday. The Jews call it Yom Kippur.
So I am meditating on the fact that I seem to have been born into a time and place where the idea of penitence, remorse, regret, sinfulness, unholiness — all of it — is “not a thing”, as the kids say. Perhaps born out of time and place, I am trying to make it “a thing” — a daily “thing” in my own life. I walk and pray and try to accept a daily sense of my need to be cleansed from “stuff” inside and outside, in my mind and in my heart. The bible I read, calls it a sense of my own unrighteousness and need. And being redeemed has to do not only with eternal salvation but with relationship to a specific and real God and relationship to specific and real others — my neighbors which Jesus says include my enemies, as well as my family members, biologically family or Christ-0logically family.
The first time I experienced someone who celebrated Ash Wednesday was when I was a freshman at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. My beloved theater professor, Jim Young, came to class with a large black smudge on his forehead and I, being ignorant of the meaning, kept trying to rub it off for him. He recoiled in horror from my little anxious helping hand. Jim is no longer wearing ashes; he is now on the other side of Resurrection Sunday forever.
I often think of that metaphoric moment and how it reveals continual issues in my own life. I have grown up in a culture that does not want to look at negative things too closely and does not want to live in grief much at all. We want to move straight on to the celebration. We want to helpfully and quickly remove the “smudges” from our own lives and the lives of others. We want to “bury the past” and “bury the body” and be happy again. We move past the moments of sorrowful deaths, both the literal ones and figurative ones, as quickly as possible. There is not enough time to grieve or mourn, there is too much to do and accomplish, and staying busy and active helps us “get past” the problems and sadnesses in our souls. And what good does it do any one anyway?
The only problem is, all of that reasoning just isn’t true. We know it isn’t true somewhere deep inside. And when we keep living by denying the smudges and moving on to the resurrection of our own happiness, we end up with ever larger and larger holes in our souls and confusion about why we aren’t all that happy. We merely bury the live body of ourselves along with the dead bodies of the other person, other relationship, other job, other life. We move our bodies along, but our souls begin to rot from within, merely masked in the myrrh of merriment. We refuse to go through the needed completeness of penitence and grief, a daily need, as Jesus told Nicodemus, to go through the painful channel of suffering and be reborn into new life. We want Jesus to have suffered for us on the cross so we can wash our hands and souls of a need to suffer with Him on behalf of our own broken lives and the lives of others. We want to avoid going through the Red Sea and wilderness and arrive in the promised land with all our “stuff”, saved and cleansed by someone else’s journey, while we sit and watch, grumble and criticize, and devour the panacea of false hopes and happinesses. We want the fruit from that tree not the one we were provided — partying continually, eating, drinking and being merry, and never finding the joy that comes with the hard work of penitence and deprivation, fasting from self-love in order to find the love beyond measure in our Heavenly Father and the selflessness of a reborn soul.
In the bible, numbers matter and forty and ten, the days of Lent and of Rosh Hashanah respectively are days of completeness. At the end, of both of these times, I don’t end up with a better me, like I might after a diet, but I end up with a better sense of who I am in the vastness of eternity and worlds without end. I end up not less penitent, but more humble and thankful to be alive, more thankful to a God who loves enough to suffer and grieve. I end up closer to shalom, or true soul-wholeness, and with a better relationship with a real God, and a better relationship to the reality of this world and my neighbor. I end up with an inkling of what completeness might really mean. And that is how sorrow leads to celebration.
This Lent, I am sharing with folks that I will be “fasting” from Facebook. The reason I am fasting from it, is because I keep anxiously and falsely thinking that I can be “helpful” — I am wired to be busy, busy, busy as a teacher, a parent, a friend. I have been reading a book by Parker Palmer and this week’s reading was about the days of “Lent” for Jesus — The Forty Days in the Wilderness– days when Jesus met head- on complete fasting and complete temptation. The One Who Was Sinless came out from those days of deprivation and temptation with a better relationship with a real God and a better relationship to the reality of this world and His neighbors, including His enemies. Jesus came out of those forty days with more grief and more joy and began the business of saving the world. And in The Christ’s ministry of sorrow and suffering, we all get a better chance at celebrating.
One great thing about writing a blog, is you get to connect with other writers. I have realized that anything I have to write, has been written better by some one else, but I also realized that I simply am one of those people who must write to think and process. I encourage any of you readers who want to take a journey into a less unfulfilling -self-centered life and a more fulfilling, other-centered life of “being”– a life where a true lenten season and a daily sense of grief and repentance and a conviction of one’s own need and want is a path to a true sense of completeness or shalom– where a time of repentance and taking up Christ’s cross leads to true joy– I highly recommend you read some of the great writers on these topics. There are many. If you haven’t read the bible for yourself, check it out along with those who can illuminate it for you. Recently, Parker Palmer and Henri Nouwen have provided a huge paradigm shift for me. I encourage you to read them. Here is the passage from Palmer that has given me an idea of how to fast and celebrate Lent this year. I look forward to celebrating with you on Facebook on the other side of the next forty days. God willing. Here’s to ashes!
From The Active Life by Parker Palmer: on fasting, temptation, and the need to prove ourselves:
In the first temptation Jesus faces, the devil says, “If you are the Chosen One, tell this stone to turn into a loaf.” But Jesus refused him…. But these word of Jesus, his refusal to turn stone into bread, are his response to the devil, not to starving people. Once Jesus moves through these temptations and embarks on his public ministry, he works a number of miracles, including the provision of bread for people who are hungry. What Jesus says and does is related to context, and when the circumstances are right he has no inhibitions about using his powers to meet authentic needs. We need only to understand why the circumstances in this story were wrong.
The devil prefaces his challenge to turn stone into bread with a taunt that takes a very familiar form: “If you are the Chosen One…Though few of us get needled for thinking we are Chosen, the tone of that taunt should remind us of outward or inward voices in our lives: “If you are so able… “If you are a real woman or man…” If you truly care…” If you are such a good parent…” The root temptation here is almost irresistible. It is not the temptation to do a magic trick, which most of us know we cannot. It is the temptation to prove our identity, which many of us feel we must…
Had Jesus made stone into bread simply to show the devil that he was the Chosen One, he would have been acting mechanically, caught in the cogs of cultural expectations, compelled by circumstances to act a role. By refusing to do so, he both demonstrates and extends his transcendence over the context of his action….Jesus does not regard himself as accountable for his calling to any voice except God’s so in his refusal to “prove” anything to the devil he is actually proving that he is the Chosen One…
When you refuse to meet the terms of an external demand, refuse to produce publicly verifiable results, you do not prove anything in the normal sense of that word. Instead, you leave yourself open to charges of elevation or cowardice, and you forfeit the external confirmation on which so many of us depend; you may become inwardly shaky about who you really are. …
In light of the fact that Jesus had been fasting in the desert for an extended period of time, “and at the end he was hungry,” the devil seems to speak with a voice of reason, perhaps even compassion, when he says, “… Tell this stone to turn into a loaf.” Henri Nouwen calls this the temptation to be relevant, and with that word he names something that many of us face from time to time—the temptation to “solve” some problem on a level that does not solve it at all, and may even make things worse.
Jesus’ real problem in the desert is not hunger—though it might look that way to an outside observer—so his real solution is not bread… when the time comes to end a fast, you do so gradually, and not devour a chunk of bread! When we rush to the aid of a fasting person, attempting to be “relevant” by insisting that he or she eat, we are likely not only to be irrelevant but to do harm as well.
True relevance requires a certain subtlety, which the very idea of relevance seems to exclude. What Jesus really needs in his desert fast is not food. In fact he does not need anything external. Like the woodcarver in the poem, who fasted not merely from food but from praise and criticism, gain and success, Jesus’ real need is for inward confirmation of his mission, a confirmation he is more likely to find in the emptiness of fasting than in the gratification of bodily needs…..
Actions that seem relevant may turn out to be irrelevant in the extreme. Parents know that they do not necessarily solve a child’s problem by giving in to the demand for a special toy. They must address the problem behind the problem, which may be the child’s capacity for delayed gratification or for simple self-reliance. Teachers know that they do not necessarily solve a student’s problem by answering the questions the student asks. The real question may be the student’s ability to find answers for himself or herself, so the teacher who withholds answers may enlarge the student’s capacity to learn. The temptation to be relevant is often the temptation to deal with only the external illusion of a problem and ignore its internal truth. (Palmer, The Active Life, excerpts from pp. 106-108)