Lent: Season of Our Hypocrisy
Ash Wednesday, I was marked the hypocrite that I am, one of the repentant hypocrites we all are who don’t do all we can to live our values. Especially we who walk around with the sign of the cross on our foreheads: two smudge-strokes of ash made by the fronds burned from last Palm Sunday, to mark the beginning of Lent, to mark the season of our hypocrisy.
We who attend Ash Wednesday services confess our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done and what we have left undone. My to-do list mocks me: send thank-you card to Grandmother; check yoga schedule; call Stacy. I confess my done list: got ashes; dropped off clothing donation; cashed checks at bank; had lunch with a friend; neglected the elderly; judged a stranger. I confess my left-undone list: didn’t send the thank-you card for the gloves Grandmother mailed a month ago; didn’t make it to yoga; haven’t called Stacy, the cancer survivor who’s going in the hospital for a biopsy of her lung tomorrow, who said a rosary for me the day she met me, the day I first drove her, as an “interfaith volunteer,” to the doctor and the grocery store. I haven’t called her today, I confess, because I don’t feel like it.
When I saw Stacy’s number in my missed calls last week, I groaned. It was the third call in five days, the third request for a ride to the grocery store, the third time I would hear about how her daughter’s too unreliable to take her, so she calls me, because I’m “an angel.” A begrudging angel, I confess. An Eeyore in angel’s clothing. A wannabe angel, with misanthropic tendencies.
This time, Stacy wants me to take her to pick up a prescription, the morning of the afternoon I’m flying home to Alabama to visit my family, the day she said she would get a friend to help her, so I can get ready for my trip. After I calm my inner misanthrope, my aspirational angel has an idea: Ask Stacy if she’d like me to take her to an early Ash Wednesday service before we go to the pharmacy, before I need to go to the airport. When I asked her if she’d like me to take her to get the ashes, she says “I’d feel like such a hypocrite.”
“Isn’t that what Lent’s about?” I say. “Being a hypocrite?” Stacy agrees.
My friend Kim says a big part of being a Christian is being a hypocrite. I agree.
And maybe Ash Wednesday’s about admitting we’re hypocrites together, bearing the sign of the cross on our foreheads, knowing it’s always-already a symbol of suffering we will not take on, a telltale mark of all we have left undone.
The Litany of Penitence goes on: We have not loved [God] with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We ask God to accept our repentance for (among other things) uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors.
On the plane home, I sit in the bulkhead row, next to a woman who orders a drink: “What kind of wine do you have?” Neither Chardonnay nor Merlot suits her, so she orders a Screwdriver.
I’ve given up drinking for Lent, because I love wine; because I self-medicate with a glass or three, of Shiraz or Pinot Grigio, a time or three a week. And I know that the drinking keeps me from my better self. It keeps me from the grieving I need to do, from the deep joy I want to live into. It dulls my attention and my compassion. It keeps me from loving with my whole heart, and mind, and strength.
I don’t practice what I preach to myself. But I’m trying, with a modest sacrifice, knowing I’m a hypocrite: I call Stacy reluctantly. I’m glad my friend’s wedding is after Lent, so I can eat, drink, and be merry. I hope giving up drinking for forty days will help me break the habit of using alcohol to dull my emotions, but I’ll probably backslide.
And I have uncharitable thoughts about my next-seat neighbor on the plane: Why is she being so choosy about her in-flight alcohol? Maybe she’s self-medicating too. Who am I to judge?
And I judge her more, I confess, for not having a book with her. I scorn her, for flipping through the SkyMall magazine until her Screwdriver comes. I curse her in my head for chatting with me as she sips her drink. I chat back, begrudgingly. We talk about the rude stewardess, the weather, her nine-month-old grandson. All the while, my misanthropic monster is screaming inside, This is not a cocktail party! Can’t you see I’m trying to read?! How dare you interrupt my Lenten reflection time!
When she looks out the window, I peek back at the page from the Ash-Wednesday lesson I’m reading:
Is not this the kind of fasting that I chose: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
How will my “fast” from drinking help me loose the chains of injustice? Let’s see, if I donate the $20 a week I would spend on wine to the soup kitchen, I could help feed a poor family. And if I connect with people at parties without the social lubricant of alcohol, maybe my compassion will sharpen, and I can come a baby step closer to loving my neighbor as myself. And since I won’t be numbing myself with wine while I’m visiting my family, maybe I can not turn away from my kin when they drive me crazy.
I make these Lenten calculations while exchanging pleasantries with my next-seat neighbor on the plane. Yes, Birmingham will be lovely: sunny and seventy degrees. My mother says the dogwoods are blooming already.
When the woman looks out the window again, I take another peak at Isaiah:
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. (Isaiah 58:10-12)
I wonder what would happen if I quit casting silent aspersions on this neighbor’s big-diamond-ringed finger over the SkyMall magazine on her lap. What would happen if I repent of thinking evil of this woman who spends money on jewelry, who doesn’t bring reading material on flights, who interrupts my Lenten contemplation with friendly conversation? What would happen if I listened to this extravagant, chatty woman as if the good news of Isaiah’s scripture were fulfilled in my hearing? Would my aggrieved angel light rise on the darkness and my Eeyore gloom be like the noonday? Would the Lord satisfy my needs in the parched places I medicate with wine? Could I be a drop of that unfailing water Isaiah prophesies?
I don’t know, but I learn by listening, to my next-seat neighbor. She’s on her way to her brother’s funeral. He was afflicted with dementia, then cancer. The hospice people were “angels.” They told the family how he was talking to people in the room where he died, calling to lost loved ones he could see coming to take him to the next life. “He didn’t die alone,” she tells me. “And that’s a comfort.”
When Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days—the “temptation of Christ” we commemorate during Lent, Satan tried to tempt him to turn stones into bread to feed himself. But Jesus resisted; he fasted among wild beasts; “and the angels ministered unto him.” (Mark 1:13)
Perhaps the fast we choose this Lent should be so hard and so easy: to be angels ministering to each other, even when we don’t feel like it.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.