Wednesday service aboard the ship. Protestant churches (at least all the ones I’ve been to)
don’t tend to make too big of a deal out of this particular occasion (after all, Good Friday
and Easter are the real reasons why we celebrate this season), but nevertheless it did feel
pretty good to be humbly reminded of the start of the Lenten season. Our chaplain began
the service by reading from Matthew 6:1-8, which in my opinion was a very ballsy move.
On a day that is devoted to outward observances, he decided to slam the part-timers with
a reminder that rubbing smudges on your head does not make you a good Christian. If I
didn’t respect the chaplain before, I certainly do now.
I was meditating on that thought later when I happened to notice this link posted in my
facebook news feed by a friend. Mildly curious, I decided to read along and see what the
Catholic perspective on this matter was. By the time I was midway through the article, I
had to resist the urge to throw my monitor across the room. If you actually take the time
to read it, you will certainly notice some very troubling language. Allow me to give you a
small excerpt (with emphases added).
“To foster the spirit of penance and of reparation for sin, to encourage self-denial, and
to guide us in the footsteps of Jesus, Church law requires the observance of fast and
abstinence (CCC 1249-1253).
1. Abstinence: All persons who have already celebrated their 14th birthday are bound to
abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent.
2. Fasting: Everyone, from the celebration of their 18th birthday to their 59th birthday, is
bound to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Voluntary fasting on other weekdays
of Lent, especially on Wednesdays and Fridays, is highly recommended. Fasting is
generally understood to mean eating one full meal each day. Two other partial meals,
sufficient to maintain strength, may be taken; but together they should not equal another
full meal. Eating between meals is not permitted, but liquids are allowed...”
While the avowed intent of these prescriptions is to foster a spirit of repentance and self-
denial, the implementation of so many rules and restrictions reeks to me of Pharisaic
legalism. I once wrote a post about the importance which Jesus placed on honoring man-made rules concerning religious observances. As you can clearly see from Matthew 12,
such rules carried virtually no weight with Jesus at all. Any organization composed of
human beings is, by default, filled with sin and error. Why anyone would allow a church
to claim such sacrosanct authority over their life is simply beyond me.
As I continue to read The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I’m becoming
more and more impressed by his resolutely Christocentric doctrine. Bonhoeffer believed
that any person, group, organization, or nation who claimed “immediacy” (meaning
loyalty) over God must be despised for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus Christ, Bonhoeffer
said, was and is the ONLY mediator who stands between us and a holy God, and his
sacrifice alone is what gives us forgiveness of our sins. Anyone else who would call for
our loyalties must be made to understand that their approval or disapproval is worthless
in the eyes of a truly Christ-centered believer. In Bonhoeffer’s own time this battle for
immediacy was made manifest in the form of a government which required that the
Fuehrer be worshipped above any other religious figure. Rather than quietly acquiesce
to the new “German-Christian” movement started by the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer and
many other principled clergymen came together to form the “Confessing Church,” an
anti-Nazi church movement, which eventually caused Bonhoeffer and many of his friends
and family to be shipped off to concentration camps.
No human being, whether they wear a pointy hat, a white collar, or an American flag,
is allowed to claim your loyalty. Jesus Christ alone is the King of Kings and the Lord
of Lords, and he does not share his glory with anyone. If your relationship with God is
moving in the right direction, you should have no fear standing up to the earthly forces
which would seek to intimidate you into bowing in obedience. Paul himself said, “I
consider all things a loss for the sake of knowing Him who saved me.”
Finally, on a positive note, I was very happy with the results of the Ash Wednesday
service for one very important reason. Even though I couldn’t care less about the outward
appearance of piety, it still felt somewhat nice (in an awkward kind of way) to know that
every person I passed by today was staring at my forehead. Some tried to tell me that I
had dirt on my head. Others, who may have recognized the symbol, simply gave me a
knowing glance. In any case, I had a wonderful conversation piece which did in fact lead
to several spiritual conversations throughout the rest of my day. Of all the labels that
one might choose to wear in life, whether they are patriot, anarchist, conformist, anti-
authoritarian, or any other, there is in fact only one label that will set you apart on the day
of God’s judgment: Christian.