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The real challenge of Ash Wednesday

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Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me, (Mt. 16:24).

I missed Mardi Gras this year. I was hoping to do something fun on Fat Tuesday, but all I did was work! Now I have to decide what I’m going to do about Lent. I wonder how many folks that went to New Orleans or Rio are now beginning forty days of self-denial?

Growing up I had a few Catholic friends. I had no religious background myself, other than “other”. I thought about becoming a Zoroastrian because Elliot Gould claimed to be one in some movie I saw and he defined the religion as “the belief that man evolved from the rhubarb stock”. I found out later it was much more complicated than that.

My Catholic friends always had to come up with something to “give up for Lent”. I had no idea that this practice had anything to do with Jesus, and looking back I’m pretty sure neither did they. In the medieval church, when all Christians were either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, people actually fasted for forty days in preparation for celebrating Easter. My friends usually just gave up something like candy or vegetables.

Jesus actually didn’t tell people to “give up something” for Lent. Lent wasn’t invented till long after Jesus rose from the dead. What he did ask people to do was to deny themselves. There is a huge difference between self-denial and denial of the self. The first is easy…the second is tough. A person can be completely ego-centered and practice self-denial. But to deny the self is to dethrone ego from the center of our lives and enthrone Christ as Lord over all.

It would be tough enough to deny the self for forty days. But Jesus asks us to do it every day! Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the day after Fat Tuesday. I would suggest that if you are more liturgical in your spiritual orientation, and have already received a cross on your forehead made of ash, or if you are non-liturgical and have nothing on your forehead but skin, that today’s text is a challenge to all of us. We are to say “No!” to self-will…and “Yes!” to God’s will. That is what Jesus is really looking for.

If you didn’t get a cross on your forehead, I would encourage you to ink a small one on your hand. It isn’t as tough as taking up your cross (an image of denial of self), but it could remind you to seek Jesus today.

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