Ashes to Ashes
[note: I started out writing a story about the time I tried to give up candy for Lent and this is what happened. As usual with something this long and written this early, the "may be edited for clarity" disclaimer applies]
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
And why, you may ask, do Catholics get these ashes - in the shape of a cross - marked on their foreheads?
Q: Why do they have their foreheads marked with a cross?
A: Because in the Bible a mark on the forehead is a symbol of a person's ownership. By having their foreheads marked with the sign of a cross, this symbolizes that the person belongs to Jesus Christ, who died on a Cross.
There you go. Don't say I never taught you anything.
I've been an atheist for a long time now, though admitting it to people - and to myself, in a way - didn't come about until the last ten years or so. But growing up Catholic has had some affect on me that will never go away just because I gave up the ghost, metaphorically speaking. There are lessons and stories and symbolisms that will stay with me always, regardless of my belief or non belief in God. And this time of year - starting with Ash Wednesday and marking the 40 days until Easter - always brings me back a bit closer to my religious roots.
My admiration for Jesus began in earnest when I was 11. It wasn't going to religious education every Wednesday afternoon, nor was it Sunday mornings spent in church that did it. No, it was seeing Jesus Christ, Superstar in the movie theater.
Even then, I had lingering questions that nobody really wanted to answer for me. So I took the standard reply of "Jesus died for your sins because he loves you" as the be all and end all of anything Jesus related. It's the only answer I would ever get and the only lesson I truly remember being taught. That lesson inspired a guilt so profound to manifest itself within my soul that it still exists today. The gist of the lesson was never spoken directly, but was implied often: Jesus got nailed to a cross and died for you, you sinner. And what have you done to repay him? Nothing! Now drop and give me twenty Hail Marys!
So I spent a good portion of my childhood both fearing and loving Jesus. I loved him for dying for me, but I was afraid that I would never live up to expectations he had of me and, therefore, his death was all for nothing. This was very egocentric of me, but I was about eight years old when I formed this idea, so I had little capacity to think about this in the broader terms of the entire Catholic population of the world.
I did separate Jesus from God early on, which a lot of my religious ed peers seemed to have a hard time doing. I knew that God was the one who watched over you 24/7 and he would report to Jesus whenever someone sinned, so Jesus could mark it down in a big book that you made him mad. And then God would punish you. He would make you trip or bite your tongue or fail a test you studied for, depending on your infraction. I was kind of confusing the lessons my Jewish friends were teaching me with my catechism lessons and the resulting conglomeration of the two was a powerful detriment to lying, cheating, stealing and fighting with my siblings - all of which were confessional booth sins.
So I had all this in mind when I went to see Jesus Christ, Superstar with my mother. I was prepared for yet another story about how Jesus hated me because I was disobedient. I certainly wasn't prepared for rock music. Or a dancing Herod. Or to be so overcome with emotion that I spent the night crying over the fate of Jesus.
My opinion of Jesus and what he wanted from me changed that night. It would change many times over the years as I learned more about him and discovered more about myself. And when the time came to finally say out loud the thought I started formulating late in high school - that I don't believe in God - I felt that I had let down not only my entire family, but Jesus as well.
So how does a person who suddenly declares herself to be an atheist still worry about Jesus? Simple - because somewhere along the line I began to view Jesus not as a religious figure, but as an historical one. No matter how much of the bible I believe is fairy tale or revisionist history, no matter how much of the story of Jesus I push aside, I do believe that a man who called himself Jesus Christ once walked the earth in pursuit of making the world a better place.
Did you ever see the movie Tommy? I eventually came to view Jesus in much the same light as Tommy; a man who believed very much in what he was doing, but who was pushed forward with great strength by his followers, making him believe he was ultimately more powerful than he was. A power trip, so to speak. Jesus's message was a beautiful one, but he got carried away with the adulation and adoration and it all went to his head. He was, after all, only human. But that's a theory for another day.
I love this time of year. Even though I haven't practiced religion in years, the season of Lent still means something to me. It's a time of renewal, a time to atone for past transgressions, to admit to your failings and make the effort to do better. It's a time to lift up your heart and see the good in yourself as well as in other people. And it's at time to think - what have I done for others? Have I carried someone else's burden? Have I given of myself, spiritually or emotionally, to those who asked for it? You don't have to subscribe to any particular religious doctrine to think about those things. It's just that all those years of partaking in Lenten activities made so much of that a part of who I am, so even though I gave up the core of what Lent is, I still took with me some of the valuable lessons.
Have you ever seen a re-enactment of the stations of the cross? It is one of the most powerful things I have ever seen in my life. I say that without exaggeration. What makes it so moving is the absolute faith and hope that are entwined with the despair and sadness. It's sometimes hard to watch. It's sometimes harder to understand. When Jesus falls for the second time(the seventh station), that's the one that breaks my heart. Even all these years later, even after denouncing belief in what Jesus held to be true (that he is the son of God), even after giving up my faith, I still cry when I witness the stations.
I don't know if all that really happened. Part of my disbelief in the Catholic church is my disbelief in most of the bible. Still, who hasn't seen or read a work of fiction that moved them to tears or made them rethink parts of their life? I'm sure we all have at one time or another. And I don't mean to belittle anyone's faith by saying these things - I admire your faith. I sometimes envy it. There are times I miss having something larger than myself to believe in or to look towards when I'm in need of guidance or reassurance. There are times I miss the group experience of church, the shared beliefs, the singing, the feeling that we all had a common ground that was moving us toward something bigger than us.
I like to think I took the best part of what I learned in church and on my own and brought it with me to my life outside religion. You don't have to be a follower of Christ to live a Christ-like life. Kindness, forgiveness, selflessness, service to others, tolerance, love - those are all things any human being should strive for. The fact that Jesus devoted his life - his entire being - to these virtues is both admirable and awe inspiring. If I can take all the lessons learned through Jesus and apply them to my life, then all those years in catechism and church did not go to waste.
And so Lent begins again and, while I should concentrate all year round on being a good person and living an unselfish life, it's this season that reminds me to make more of an effort, to renew my faith in myself, to find the good in everyone, to sacrifice for others, to stand tall in my beliefs and to remember and thank anyone who has sacrificed for me.
When people ask my how, as an atheist, can I honestly raise my children with any kind of faith or morals or values, I give them the short answer: because I still believe in the core teachings of Jesus. I've gotten weird responses to that - some people have responded angrily, telling me that Jesus wouldn't want me and that I'm making a mockery of their beliefs by co-opting their savior. That's not my intent, of course. Many people find their life's beliefs through historical figures, maybe in philosophers or economists or authors.
Wherever you find something that pulls at your heart or your mind and makes you want to be a better person or make a difference in this world, embrace it, regardless of what people say.