Theology 101

Lent’s dry sense of humor

Because Easter falls later than usual this year — April 16 — so too does Ash Wednesday — March 1. Even so, it seems we were just enjoying the blessings of the Christmas season not that long ago, and already it’s time to consider Lent.

What shall I do — and not do — this year? Refrain from television? Promise to read the Bible cover to cover? Give up ice cream (except on Sundays, of course)? Lents come and go, but with Ash Wednesday fast approaching, the question remains: How can I approach this Lent in a different spirit?

Ash Wednesday serves as the starting point for Lent and so this solemn day gives us an idea. Mass on Ash Wednesday is filled with beautiful, spiritually rich prayers and readings. But perhaps the most memorable text is the command given during the distribution of ashes: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

“The Lord God,” the Book of Genesis tells us, “formed the man out of the dust of the ground.” (2:7) The word “human” comes, in part, from the Latin root humus, meaning ground, soil or earth. To be human means — both etymologically and naturally — to be formed from the clay or the dust.

Human is also related to — is, in fact, the source of — the words “humble” and “humility.” The humble man knows his origins, and also his destiny. The proud man, on the contrary, grasps at things beyond his earthly state, rights and privileges not in keeping with his roots.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

But, as Jesus tells us in Ash Wednesday’s Gospel, “do not look gloomy!” A humble human’s Lent does not end in drought.
Although not related to our “human” core, “humor” can make this Lent remarkable. (I admit starting down this rabbit hole of an article thinking the two words are connected linguistically — only to find out that, while distinct in origin, they are spiritually complementary.)

“Humor,” they say, is related to “humid,” and it means at its core to be liquid or fluid. Here, too, are key Lenten themes: water at the Samaritan well, water from the Rock in the dusty desert, water from the side of Christ, all culminating in the waters of baptism.

The Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart (d.1328) even suggests that God, “hovering over the waters” (Gn 1:2), laughed us into being! He gives life to dust, joy to drought, humor to humans. “He raises the needy from the dust,” the First Book of Samuel says. “From the ash heap he lifts up the poor, to seat them with nobles and make a glorious throne their heritage” (2:8).
May your Lent 2017 be human, humble, and humorous — and may holiness be its fruit.

Christopher Carstens Director of the Office for Sacred Worship

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