Ash Wednesday Challenges Our Secular Calendars
If we want a clear picture of our presumptions concerning time, look no further than our calendars.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’s infernal epistolary between a senior devil and his young protégé, Wormwood, “Uncle Screwtape gives his demonic junior some shrewd advice about how time itself can become a fertile source of temptation:
“You must… zealously guard in [your victim’s] mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own’… You have here a delicate task. The assumption which you want him to go on making is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of argument in its defense. The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon his chattels [my italics].”
If we want a clear picture of our presumptions concerning time, look no further than our calendars, which often read like a glorified Table of Contents for “our days,” “our weeks,” “our months,” “our years,” “our time.” Though calendars have an ancient history, it’s a distinctly modern belief that they communicate ownership, as much as they do organization.
But our calendars do more than confirm our sense of ownership regarding time. They also provide conclusive evidence that our default is to order our lives by the surrounding culture, rather than the life of Christ himself. In this sense, the only Sunday that can compete with the Super Bowl arrives on Easter. What makes this basic orientation so powerful is that it requires so little effort. From teacher workdays and bank holidays to concerts and sports events, if we simply drift along with our times, our calendars will confirm that we are in and of the world. If, however, we take our cues from the Church Calendar, the very shape of our lives will convey that we are in the world but not of it.
Our calendars provide conclusive evidence that our default is to order our lives by the surrounding culture, rather than the life of Christ himself.
Because I recognize the potency of Screwtape’s temptation, I’ve tried to cultivate the habit of following the Church Calendar throughout the year. One of the most elemental lessons to be learned from this great artifact is that time is not our own, that our days are numbered, and that all of our endeavors are carried out in the shadow of mortality.
Ash Wednesday is as fitting an invitation to the Church Calendar as any. This day marks the beginning of Lent, a period of forty days that reflects Jesus’ own forty days of temptation in the wilderness. As such, it is a somber season characterized by repentance and self-reflection. The plea in The Book of Common Prayer frames it well:
“Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
“Worthily lamenting our sins” and “acknowledging our wretchedness” are not items we usually add to our calendars, but, given the perpetual conflicts in our lives, most of us can readily see that they ought to be. Though such introspection runs counter to the incessant cultural mantras of narcissism and self-indulgence, the end result is an abiding sense of peace. It is the peace that comes from resting in Christ’s mercy. In this sense, the imposition of the ashes in the shape of a cross on one’s forehead functions as a simultaneous reminder of the frailty of the human condition (“For dust you are and to dust you will return.”), as well as a sign of Christ’s ownership. True, we are but dust, but for this very reason, our hope is in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
Ash Wednesday is a fitting occasion to mark sacred time by prioritizing the events surrounding Christ’s calendar, rather than our own. It is a powerful check on our tendency to treat time as a commodity, instead of a gift. In James’s humbling words, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that (4:13-15).’”
In this Lenten season, may our calendars be prefaced by the words “If the Lord wills.”