A smile, a giggle, and outright laughter. It's Lent.
A few years ago at the university where I lived and taught, as I was saying my prayers on Ash Wednesday Eve before I went to bed, I decided that I would really do it up on and for Ash Wednesday. Instead of fasting for the day and eating only one full meal, I wouldn't eat anything at all. I would have an altogether foodless Ash Wednesday. It would be a big sacrifice, it would help me feel the beginning of Lent in a very real way, it would help me understand how dependent I am on God to feed me in more ways than one.
OK, so the day started out fine. I dropped the bagel for breakfast, even the coffee, went to work in the office and made it through the morning in pretty good spirits. I didn't tell anyone I was doing this, of course, I wanted to be more humble than that, and I was hungry, but not too much so, and was able to get my work done. As the morning turned to afternoon, and as I prepared to teach a long class, I started to get hungrier, and a little edgy. I didn't have everything quite ready for class, and so I got a little frantic making copies and writing notes.
By the time I entered the classroom, I was not my normal cool self. And now I was hungry, and I felt it very obviously. There was a candy machine out in the hallway, and there were Snickers in there, and Sour Patch Kids, and small bags of Chips Ahoy, and I had some change in my pocket, which I kept fingering before the class. I went out to the hallway and trolled around like a shark getting ready for the kill, but just as I was about to pull the change out and sink it into the machine, a kid in my class passed me by with a huge smudge of ashes on his forehead. I immediately felt guilty, and I quickly dropped the change back into my pocket and returned to the classroom.
But I was no fun for that class, that class was no fun for my students, and though they didn't know the reason, I was impatient and jumpy and not in the mood to joke around with them, as I usually do. I could see it in their faces, and all of them left at the end of class right away instead of hanging around as some usually did.
No breakfast, no lunch, no snacks, and I was now approaching dinnertime, pretty much very hungry, but no....it was Ash Wednesday and I was secretly going to make a complete fast for the whole day. I went to the gym as usual, and found myself particularly annoyed when I couldn't get to use this cross-trainer machine because all these kids were on them the whole time I was there. I started to get mad at them, at everyone for their obvious selfishness in not letting me get a chance to use the machines too. Of course they didn't know I was thinking all this, that I wasn't thinking very well of them, that I wanted to kill a couple of them, just because I couldn't get my turn.
I allowed myself a huge helping of water when I got back to my room in the dorm and showered, thinking that it would fill me up and make me forget my hunger, but all it did was make me feel bloated and of course required me to go to the bathroom many times all that evening. I tried to do some work, but couldn't really concentrate, put on the tv and got ticked off at what was on. I opened and closed the refrigerator door about 8 times, eyeing the one yogurt sitting in there defiantly daring me to pick it up.
OK, then it was 10 o'clock and the night was almost over except that I was going to give out ashes to students living in my dormitory. It was, as I expected, an overflow crowd in the lounge—probably about 80 kids or more--- and I put them in a big circle around the room. I had a little prayer service prepared, passed out some papers with the prayers, and asked them to be very quiet and serious while we prayed and distributed the ashes.
Everything was cool until I got to the distribution time. As I went from student to student, "Remember brother, you are dust and to dust you shall return", looking at their solemn and serious faces, I could hear a couple of kids up the line talking and talking. I stopped, looked straight at them with a nasty face, glaring them into silence.
That clearly put a mood on the whole moment, and everyone was even more serious. When I got to the one girl who had been talking, she looked down as I said the words, "Remember sister, you are dust and to dust you shall return", and as I made the sign of the cross as a mark with the ashes upon her forehead, she started to smile, then a small giggle mightily restrained, and then out it came like a burst dam, this huge peal of laughter, the kind of laugh that comes out when you know you're not supposed to laugh at all. But the thing about this laugh was that it was contagious, you heard her laugh and you couldn't help but smile, then giggle, then erupt in your own outright avalanche of laughter. And it spread to the kid next to her, and the kid next to him---it went from student to student around this giant circle like a row of dominoes collapsing, like a string of firecrackers going off one by one. Each one was slain in the spirit of laughter until it got all the way back to me, and I cracked, totally, a whole room full of 80 kids and one starving, formerly crabby priest, all of us laughing and giggling about nothing and about well, everything. It got so bad I almost dropped the ashes as I collapsed in laughter, but caught the bowl in a ridiculously goofy move, making everyone laugh all the more.
When it was finally over, when the laugher had been wringed out of all of us, we continued the ash distribution, but this time with a smile on all our faces. One young face to another, I smiled at them as I placed the ashes on their forehead and they smiled right back at me. And strangely I wasn't hungry anymore, not at that moment anyway, but just very happy, and filled with I don't know, filled with joy, I guess. Because I realized something about myself, and about Lent.
There is a line from the first reading today, the book of Deuteronomy, and it sums up what I think the real thrust of Lent should be. "Then you and your family, together with the Levite and the aliens who live among you, shall make merry over all these good things which the Lord, your God, has given you." Moses, speaking to his people who finally made it to the land of milk and honey with God's grace, tells them to thank God and "make merry" for His goodness to them.
It struck me that we celebrate Lent under the same circumstances. You know, we live in a land of milk and honey and bagels and Snickerbars, a land opened up to us once and for all in the Easter morning triumph of Jesus over 2000 years ago.
In some ways I think we've given Lent a bad name. This is actually supposed to be a joyful season, and still, for many of us, it's a season of gloom and giving up, of ashes and lashes. It seems that there is a positive side of the Lenten word repent, a joyous side of repentance that includes merriment.
What I am trying to say is that Lent is not meant to be a time of grouchy or waist-slimming denial. If anything it is a time to be all the more loving, all the more merry with one another, in gratitude for all that we have and are given. Lent should be more a time of giving out than giving up, giving out a smile, or a helping hand, an hour or a day or a week of your smiling time to someone who knows neither Christ nor anything to be merry about. Lenten denial should always be for someone else, a giving out of the love and life we know ourselves as a gift from our loving God.
So, let us live out these next 40 days in denial of our grouchiness and selfishness, and in merriment for our brothers and sisters who need to know God's smile in us.