Here’s a funny story. A church I was on staff with once had a “white elephant gift exchange” party. Apparently, there was this rule that if you touched a gift it became yours. As I was clearly not paying attention, I did not hear this crucial regulation. When my turn came up I started by perusing the gift options that had already been opened before heading to the table with all the still-wrapped gifts and bobbles. That’s when I came upon E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and an accompanying small whip. This is the moment when remembering that “you touch it, you bought it” rule would have been important. Attempting to ever be the jester, I reached for the book and sealed my doom.
The book, the bullwhip, were mine. And, as added benefit, I was the butt of all jokes for the rest of the evening.
That whip proudly hung in my office over the next couple of years, resplendent with a red bow. I never read the book. But, from what I gather it’s about a virginal college student (Ana) who falls for a billionaire (Christian Grey) with a kink for BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism) relationships, and he wants the unspoiled Ana to play the submissive to his dominant.
There’s, well…how do you put this…been a lot of opinion whipping around the internet this last fortnight as the book came to the big screen on Valentine’s Day (how sweet).
Not wanting to throw comment and critique to the way side (which is a nice way of saying I am going to) I am not about to weigh the merits and/or debatably deplorable nature of the book/film. Instead, I’m going to do what any normal person would do and make a clear connection between Fifty Shades of Grey, Ash Wednesday, and the forty days of Lent.
Today (February 18, 2015) is Ash Wednesday. Millions of Christians across the world -- Catholic, Lutheran, Anglicans, others — will commemorate the commencement of Lent, a 40-day penitential season of fasting and preparation preceding Easter, the celebration of Jesus' resurrection from the dead — with the "imposition" or "infliction" of ashes on their foreheads.
The symbol of ashes on the forehead are meant to serve as a reminder of the contrite believers' physical return to dust (accompanied by a ritualistic repetition of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" or "from dust you came, from dust you shall return") and their spiritual condition as sinners in need of mourning over their sin, confession, and repentance.
Here’s a sampling of a prayer from an Ash Wednesday liturgy, or rite of worship:
Savior, prostrate I fall at thy feet this day…to ponder upon thy passion….In spirit I appear before thee in sackcloth and ashes, in true repentance. Let not the pleasures of life….crowd thee out of my heart and out of my thoughts. Draw me to thy wounded side, and cleanse me with thy most precious blood….By thy grace let me crucify my sinful afflictions, lusts, and desires….I am dust, and to dust I shall return…chastise me, break my sinful will, restore me, cleanse me, O Lord. Amen.
So, to recap: mourning, ashes, down on your knees, prostrate, no pleasure, sinful lust and temptation, wounds, blood, sinful afflictions, chastising, breaking. Are we talking Ash Wednesday here or Fifty Shades?
Or, let’s put it another way, as an atheist friend of mine once asked me in Houston. After reading through the crucifixion narratives in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, she asked me, “does it ever appear to you that y’all have a ‘masochist Messiah?’ Really, with all the blood, pain, and sin payments you have a pretty sadistic spirituality.
Do we Christians worship a "masochist Messiah?” Do we practice some sick, sadistic, 'Fifty Shades of Grey' spirituality?
A lot of the censure that came out about the Fifty Shades book/film is that it denigrated women and promoted a myth of healthy violence. Indeed, in his book The Powers that Be, Walter Wink (excellent name, sir) called out religion’s role, Christianity included, in furthering the cause of “the myth of redemptive violence” which he saw as a literary/mythological tool that impacts modern culture and its role in maintaining oppressive power structures. Crucifixion as myth of redemptive violence anyone?
It’s true that Ash Wednesday, Lent, and other liturgical moments in the Christian church tend to invite us to the dark side of life, spirituality, and our relationship with the Creator of the cosmos. Yet, I don’t believe there is any good reason to say we worship a masochist Messiah or engage in a particularly sadistic spirituality replete with soul bondage and deistic domination.
Instead, I contend, Ash Wednesday and Lent are times for us to collectively reflect on the very potent and omnipresent realities of suffering, pain, and death. It is a communal opportunity to acknowledge that there is misery, affliction, and slaughter in this world.
Of course, we may not need to go to church to see this. We may need only look at the headlines.
We look out on a world where a jihadist group is terrorizing its way across the Middle East and North Africa; planes fall out of the sky nearly every week; civilians are perishing in Israel-Gaza, the Ukraine, Somalia-Kenya; innocents are gunned down in our city streets, and others are wasting away under the threat of Ebola. The world, we feel, is collapsing around us. Closer to home, we are struggling with financial stress, cancer, broken relationships, piss-poor body image, binge drinking, or deeper personal pains. The world, our lives, are in such a mess that we might be tempted to cry out with the teacher from Ecclesiastes, “Meaningless, meaningless…everything is meaningless!” (Ecc. 12:18).
In truth, there is something to observing, and calling out, the wretchedness of this world. Rabbis from the early part of the first millennia said that after Adam and Eve fell in the garden that God did not assign the curses in Genesis 3, but he observed them. He said to our progenitors, “this is how it’s going to be now guys, this is the situation as it is — there will be pain, there will be sweat, there will be toil, there will be death. All because of sin.”
Our ritual reading of the headlines, or the imposition of ashes, acknowledges the pain of the world and reminds us that we live in limited bodies, in a limited world, with death as its inevitable end.
Yet, while the headlines roll on in seemingly measureless melancholy and rancor fills our social media feeds over books, religious groups, or movies, Ash Wednesday and Lent remind us not only of the pain, but of the succor of our Savior.
You see, there is not only one, single, shade to Ash Wednesday or Lent. It’s not just about death black and penitential purple. Sado-masochistic moods of repentance and anguish are not the sole shade of this season. Instead, the “fiftieth” shade of this season is one of heavenly hope, one of corporeal compassion, one of redemption.
Indeed, the message of Ash Wednesday and Lent is not only that we are all going to die someday, but also that we will rise and be restored. How? Why?
The message of Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the Gospel is that Jesus lived amidst the pain, the suffering, the death and he felt it personally, in his body. He was touched with the same feeling, able to sympathize with our weakness (Heb 4:15-16). He knew our pain. He did not revel in it or celebrate it. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, stricken, smitten, and afflicted (Is. 53).
Instead of inviting us into the myth of redemptive violence this season and the liturgical rhythms invite us to embrace the reality of redemptive suffering.
More than simply going through the motions of Lent, or even endeavoring to fast our way through the forty days, the call of this penitential season is to let those forty days transform, and even transfigure, us.
And what is the transformation? Turning from an elitist, escapist, and illusory understanding of the world as all glory and growth to a redemptive, real, and tender understanding of the suffering in our world. But we mustn't stop there. We must see the redemptive value of suffering.
South African anti-apartheid hero Desmond Tutu wrote, “When we are able to see the larger purpose of our suffering, it is transformed, transmuted. It becomes redemptive suffering.” When we see what Christ did with suffering, sin, and death on the cross by defeating them, today’s suffering is put in its place, in its rightful perspective. And we can suffer it, knowing it does not have the final word. The pain is transformed, it is transfigured.
Richard Rohr, a Catholic contemplative, added that pain, if not transformed, will be transmitted. Think about that. If we do not allow our pain, our suffering to be transformed by Jesus, it will be spread out to others or, in the very least, other parts of our own life. Think of all the untransformed pain and how it has spread – in bitter fights in our home, in passive aggressive rage at work, in friendships spoiled, in massacre, rape, thievery, jealousy, and acidic anger.
But when our pain is transformed it contributes to the healing and re-creation of the world. So then how we decide to respond to the pain & suffering in our life is a very serious matter.
Just as Jesus’ life has this rhythm to it, so does our spirituality: Redemption involves suffering; transfiguration involves pain; resurrection always involves the cross. We follow in his suffering, because we follow Him in redemption. They are connected. No cross, then no crown, it would seem as Claude Nikondeha put it.
It is my prayer for you, for me, this Ash Wednesday and Lent that we may, in the smearing of ashes across our foreheads, in the hunger pains of fasting, or in the simple prayers of repentance and reminders of everyday suffering, see see the strange, mystical, and miraculous connection between suffering and redemption.
Or as, the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky put it, I pray “you will burn and you will burn out; you will be healed and come back again.”
You see, as we suffer, and allow that pain to be redeemed we contribute to the transfiguration of the world in some mystical way. We are partnering with Christ in the restoration of all things. We are letting Christ do his work, and have his way with us. In this season we are not only living the forty shades of Lent or the fifty shades of ash, but embodying the many shades of God’s redemptive work in the world through suffering, pain, and death.
And that is a thought to dwell on today, and throughout, I think, the season of Lent to come.