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.”

The Journey of Dust

The sun bore down on my neck as I walked through neatly laid stones, each row like another line in a massive book. My eyes strained to take in all of the information—name, age, rank, country—and perhaps also death itself, the fragility of life, the harsh reality of war. In that field of graves, a war memorial for men lost as prisoners of war, slaves laboring to construct the Burma-Siam railway, I felt as the psalmist: “laid low in the dust.” Or like Job, sitting among the dust and ashes of a great tragedy. Then one stone stopped my wandering and said what I could not. On an epitaph in the middle of the cemetery was written: “There shall be in that great earth, a richer dust concealed.”(1)

It is helpful, I think, to be reminded that we are dust. We are material. When we die, we remain material. It is a reminder to hold as we move through life—through successes, disappointments, questions, and answers. For the Christian, it is also a truth to help us approach the vast and terrible circumstances leading up to the crucifixion of the human son of God. Beginning with the ashes of Ash Wednesday, the journey through Lent into the light and darkness of Holy Week is for those made in dust who will return to dust, those willing to trace the breath that began all of life to the place where Christ breathed his last. It is a journey that expends everything within us.

There is a Latin word that was once used to denote the provisions necessary for a person going on a long journey—the clothes, food, and money the traveler would need along the way. “Viaticum” was a word often used by Roman magistrates. It was the payment or goods given to those who were sent into the provinces to exercise an office or perform a service. The viaticum was vital provision for an uncertain journey. Fittingly, the early church employed this image to speak of the Eucharist when it was administered to a dying person. The viaticum, the bread of Communion, was seen as sustenance for Christians on their way from this world into another. Sometime later, the word was used not only to describe a last Communion, but as the Sacrament of Communion for all people. It is as if to say: our communion with Christ is provision for the way home. The viaticum is God’s answer to Jacob’s vow, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God.”(2) It is what Christ offered when he said, “Take and eat. This is my body.” The journey from dust to dust and back to the Father’s house would be far too great without it—without him.

Our humanity is beckoned to face its humble beginnings on this coming Ash Wednesday. We are given 40 days to journey with this thought, to follow in the vicarious humanity of the Son where he leads us, until we are leveled by the bright sadness of Holy Week. From the invitation to consume his body and blood in the Last Supper to the desolation of that body on the Cross, we are undone by events that began before us and will continue to be remembered long after we are gone. The season of Lent is a stark reminder that we are, in the words of Isaiah or the sentiments of the psalmist, like grass that withers, flowers that blow away like dust. But so we are, in this great earth, a richer dust concealed. Walking in cemeteries we realize this; communing with Christ we encounter it. Preparing to walk through Lent as dust and ashes invites us to see our need for the Father's unchanging provision: We are offered the Cross, communion and forgiveness, the body of one broken, hope in one raised, and the life everlasting.

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) This is a line from a poem of Rupert Brookes entitled “1914.”
(2) Genesis 28:20-22.

"A Slice of Infinity" is aimed at reaching into the culture with words of challenge, truth, and hope. By stirring the imagination and engaging the mind, we want to share the beauty and truthfulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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