I had the strangest Saturday. To be clear, it was strange, but not bad. You see, it was strange because of a couple of disparate things that came together to make my day. Artists, whether in visual arts, film or even music, often use juxtaposition to make a point, to make something that you’d normally take for granted – well -strange, to jar your attention and uncork your imagination. I think that’s what was happening to me. So I felt strange.
I spent my midday downtown with a buddy at a “Mardi Gras Primer.” While this festival was filled with life and jubilation, it was decidedly less debaucherous than its Crescent City cousin (this was after all, only a primer, no appearance from Bacchus himself). We sat and listened to music teeming with joy and tradition, rich tones and raucous improvisations. The saints came marching in along with literally dozens of brass playing “strutters” and of course, “Hey Pocky Way” had its hearing. The dance floor filled with an ever-evolving mix of goofballs, Deadheads, toddlers, NPR Sustainers, girls from Raleigh, and guys in bands….
I remember marveling at the common joy, the shared humanity, the unbridled enthusiasm and overflowing affection for our dear Bull City. We scooped up our crawfish trying to avoid bits of soggy spiced newspaper or the wrong stalk of celery and then held a clinic with the entry-level agrarian girls that stole our seats on exactly where to pinch the tail and pull for maximum crawdad consumption efficiency. I left happy, filled, unable to touch my eyes even after several hand washes, bearing the proper olfaction of a proper Fat Tuesday.
I returned home to the kids and our rigorously orthodox dinner, bath, and pre-bed liturgy. After they were down and out for the night in their white-noise washes, I set about my priestly task. You see, I’ve been reading Leviticus, and its copious requirements and descriptions of what clergy does, for the sake of their people and on behalf of God. I don’t envy their job, or the guiding divine mandate that required it, but as I’ve waded through the tedium of the text, I’ve been acutely aware of how little my job as a pastor requires me to shower. Cutting up animals and burning grain offerings is not even implied in my job description. On a typical Sunday, I feel particularly handy (in a holy way) if I use a power drill to raise and lower the basketball goals out of our line of sight or when prepare the already prepared bread and juice for Communion. That said, I set about my priestly, and carbon-neutral, task of converting last year’s Palm Sunday palms into this year’s Ash Wednesday ashes.
You see that’s precisely where the juxtaposition lay. Last year’s party, this year’s fasting. My hands, the same hands that still reeked of feasting, that were beginning to betray the sour of prebed, spit-up, now overwhelmingly stunk like singed hand hair and carbon. Where I had witnessed so much joy, a motley krewe of a congregation, I now flashed back to our Hosanna-singing, palm-toting congregation and the small pile of embers their messianic accoutrement had come to. There was a stark realization, a both/and affirmation, that both experiences are real, and valid, and faithful even and especially in their seeming contradiction. That human beings, imaging their creative Creator God, were neither made for all party nor all funeral procession. But somehow, in Christ and by his Spirit, both at the same time.
Ashes, and yet Crawfish.
Ash Wednesday, and yet Mardi Gras.
Saint Paul got at this in his second letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote about his ministry and his hardships. After a grocery list of difficulties, he gets into the paradoxes. “…through glory and dishonor, bad report and good; genuine, yet regarded as imposters; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on…” (2 Corinthians 6:8-9a).
As I enter into Lent, I pray that I remember that juxtaposing stench on my hands from Saturday. That it might somehow reinforce that dying-living life that Christ lived and made possible for me, for us, for this world. That I might not fear that seeming contradiction, but submit to its foolish-wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). And that I might “know Christ, the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in death, and so somehow, attaining the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10).