At the end of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the grandmother, a mean old woman, is staring death in the face, and his name is The Misfit. Despite being perfectly horrible to her family, she is now suddenly able to try and point The Misfit to Jesus. She starts to see the good in people and even cries to Jesus for help. The Misfit shoots her.
“She was a talker, wasn’t she?” Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.
“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
The same could be said for most of us. Underneath the hardness of our hearts and the hiddenness of our sin is a person who would change it all when faced with death. As soon as the grandmother saw that her end was near, she became more willing to see past the criminal flaws of The Misfit. She also became more willing to speak to and on behalf of Jesus the Christ.
On Wednesday, people from my church will line up in front of me and each take their turn so that I can smear a potion of ash and oil onto their foreheads in the shape of a cross and hear me remind them that they are going to die. This act is something I’ve performed on the first day of Lent for twelve years. I did it because that’s what we do. This year I finally asked myself and my staff why we do what we do on Ash Wednesday. If a stranger showed up to church on Ash Wednesday, could any of us give a reasonable explanation for such an odd practice?
For most of my life, Lent has seemed an odd observance. Friends and acquaintances give up something for forty days. Why? I get that it is a season of penitence, a time to reflect on our mortality, and to focus on the serious nature of taking up one’s cross and following Jesus. But why start it with a deathly reminder and then participate through fasting? So far, I’ve come up with one reason for each and it’s what I plan on telling people if they become curious about our strange tradition.
On Ash Wednesday, we remind one another that we are going to die, because we really do have one foot in the grave. It gives us space and symbol to ask, “What would I do if I knew I had 46 days to live? How differently would I live?” We humans have a tendency to revert into predictable patterns because we crave stasis. But many of us, myself included, need The Misfit to bring the truly important to the surface of our thinking and living. The reminder of Ash Wednesday isn’t some macabre practice, but a joyful opportunity to remember that we have died but we’ve also been raised to new life. If time is short, the most important actions and attitudes become more clear and urgent. We must take up our cross and follow Jesus. We must love God and love our neighbor. We must make disciples.
For the rest of Lent, we fast in light of the gracious reminder of death. We do not fast to show the world we are spiritually superior, but because we know that Jesus is more valuable than anything we clutch tightly or desire. We remember that no matter how much we want that cup of coffee or that Snickers, those objects of affection are nothing compared to Jesus. When I fast, when I’m aware of my hunger, I often say to myself, “Lord, I want to hunger for you more than I hunger for food.”
If I knew I only had 46 days to live, or if I had someone to shoot me every minute of my life, I would want every word and deed to reflect the fact that Jesus is worth more than all my possessions, food, and even the air I breathe. Suddenly, our grim and solemn reminders become means of grace to help us love as we have been loved, no matter how much time remains.
View all of our resources related to Lent here; view our Guide for Christian Fasting through Lent by Winfield Bevins; view some songs you can add to your Lent playlist; Jonathan Powers talks about “limiting Lent” here; view all of our resources related to the Christian calendar here; Julie Tennent offers some helpful hymns for Lenten worship here.
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