I was walking down Broadway last year when I saw three Episcopalian priests standing on the corner of 80th street.
I had some time to kill before an appointment, so I sat on the median benches located there and watched them for a few minutes. They were performing the Ash Wednesday ceremony, placing the symbol of the cross on the foreheads of passersby that wanted to commemorate the start of Lent.
I’ve never really practiced Lent. I grew up in a tradition where Easter was only remarkable for the new dress I got to buy. We didn’t celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas, and while there might have been a resurrection sermon at Easter, there was none of the anticipation, none of the ceremony.
When I moved to New York, things began to shift. I didn’t know where my place was in Christianity after being told for years that, as a queer woman, I didn’t have one. Or if I did, it would have to be a repentant one, a guilty one. I refused to live in perpetual guilt, but I still felt as if I were missing something – even if it was just something to fight against.
In my more northern abode, many of my friends, coworkers, and students came from more Catholic, Episcopalian, or other backgrounds more rooted in tradition than the Southern, fundamentalist, evangelical world from which I hailed, a world that set itself in opposition to pageantry.
Only a few I knew were still practicing, but, in the way that only cultural Catholics can muster, some sat aside coffee, sweets, or cigarettes for Lent, giving themselves a second chance at the New Years resolution they inevitably failed to uphold.
And perhaps because of proximity or displacement, I began to incorporate the practice into my own life slowly.
For the uninitiated, Lent represents the time that Christ spent forty days wandering and fasting in the wilderness. In the last week, some observe Holy Week, which commemorates the last supper, Christ’s betrayal by Judas, his trial, crucifixion, and final resurrection. The resurrection is the cornerstone of the Christian faith—new life, new hope, and a new beginning.
It begins with Ash Wednesday, when ashes are placed on the foreheads of observers by a priest alongside the admonition, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Or sometimes, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Both are reminders of sin, of the mortality gained after the Fall. The ashes act as a visible symbol of penance, of a person’s willingness to own his or herself as inherently sinful, and to, as my grandmother would say, “get right with God.”
In the early church, Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of a season of fasting and repentance, which would allow “sinners” who had sometimes been separated from the church to begin a public, sometimes shaming, reconciliation process.
In Biblical times, those looking to repent wore sackcloth and ashes and made public confessions. This practice had a long life span and became one of the milder ways to seek public penance up through the middle ages. Public penance was usually reserved for the more egregious, “mortal” sins: murder, rape, adultery, and homosexuality, among others.
For more enthusiastic worshipers, public penance often took on a physical, sadomasochistic quality. The practices of corporal or humiliating punishment were also carried over into protestant practice among the puritans. Think public whippings or The Scarlet Letter.
So watching those ministers on the Upper West Side, part of me wanted to go and take a minute out of my day to acknowledge my faith. But I was held back. Because, as a queer woman who has had to fight for my place in Christianity, as someone who, by openly acknowledging my identity already exists in the eyes of the prejudiced as a “public sinner,” I have no patience, and no time for any ritual that, no matter how symbolic, asks me to consent to a mark of sin and shame. Historically, we have been publicly marked quite enough.
The number forty is significant in the Bible, and usually represents a period of trial that awaits something better. It rained for forty days and forty nights during the Great Flood. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years before being granted access to the Promised Land. Jesus wandered in the wilderness for forty days after his baptism.
So during these forty days, I will also choose to hope for something better. Instead of giving up caffeine or carbs, I will choose to give up shame. Although I was once separated by the church because of the bigoted and uninformed, I’m coming to the end of this particular trial. By the end of Lent, I hope I can celebrate a more complete reconciliation. Just like they used to, and was intended.