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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.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Ashes to Ashes:

» It's Ash Wednesday from The Daily Brief: We'll Try To Be Nicer, If You'll Try To Be Smarter!
...43 years old and I still have to spell-check "Wednesday"... Others are explaining their religious points of view, I thought I'd try something a little more fun and in the spirit of the season as it were. The most radical and shocking stat... [Read More]

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Michelle at A Small Victory walks the journey of Lent from a very unique perspective. What I enjoy most is the fact that she doesn't belittle those of us with faith. If there is one thing I've noticed from some... [Read More]

» Too long to comment from One Name Left
This was going to be a comment, but it was too long. I couldn't hijack, Michele's comments, so I decided to just post it here. Sure now only, 3 people will read it, but maybe that's just as well. Michele,... [Read More]


Thanks, Michele. Wonderfully put.

Faith and belief is a gift, but it is also a decision. I believe because I chose to believe. I find something happens to be not only in a spiritual way, but in a physical way, when I choose to believe that God has sent Himself into the world in the person of Christ, that Christ died on the cross, and was resurrected from the dead. I was a Buddhist for years, and spiritual things happened, but it was different than it is with Christ.

Ack, I'm not trying to convince you of anything, you just got me thinking ...

If you want to raise your children with the core teachings of Jesus, well, one could do worse, right? Good luck.

When I was younger, still struggling with faith, I would argue with atheists any chance I could, thinking that this would make me a stronger Christian...what I eventually realized was that I was trying to convince myself more than the person on the other end that God existed...as I realized this and matured, I was able to grow in my faith without having to beat others down. If how I live my life is testimony enough to make someone consider or reconsider the existence of God, either way, the onus falls completely on me.

"He was, after all, only human."

And the death threats from people who supposedly follow the teachings of a man who said "Turn the other cheek" will begin....NOW

Jado, I don't know about (empty) THREATS coming from the Christian community, but it's the "Religion of Peace" that actually follows through on this stuff.

Jesus was fully human, so I really don't get your point anyway.

I don't think either of your comments were really appropriate. In fact, they were both unecessary and ignorant.

I find myself with some similar views, but an almost reversed path. I was raised with no formal religion, but in a region that was mostly Catholic. My parents were Methodists but didn't attend church. I was never an atheist, I was agnostic. Nothing had caused me to believe, to have faith, yet I certainly had no evidence of the absence of God. Later, certain events and experiences brought me faith. Yet I had no formal religion.

After getting married I converted and became a Catholic. I enjoy the ceremony and the emphasis on traditions, rather than on the bible text. Not once have I found the church emphasizing the "you'll be punished" angle so prominent among some baptists and evangelicals. I've known only a few Catholics with experiences like yours, where guilt was prominent. But the parishes around Boston often follow the Irish tradition, which is more mystical and less literal than the Italian tradition.

As for the stations of the Cross, there's no better place than Bom Jesus De Monte, in Braga, Portugal:
Gorgeous and an amazing spot.

After ignorning Mardi Gras which is a "solemn" tradition, I actually welcome the reminder of Ash Wednesday. And I thank you for sharing some of your journey to and through the stories, histories and/myths that serve as stations in our years. A true blessing to have a religious heritage which encourages the questioning, and allows non-belief. We all need to consider the cross on our forehead, and the ownership implied.

I threw the baby out with the bath water years ago. Once I learned about Constantine in college back in the 80s my faith in religion was doomed. It took years for me to realize that there can be faith in God without religion.

When pressed I call myself a Taoist Catholic which amuses Taoists and annoys Catholics and so...my work is complete.

I think it was Leo Buscalia who said, "And so what if Jesus was just a man? Can you think of a better role model?"

Other books that helped me was "Joshua" and the sequals by Joseph Girzone. The basic premise being...what if He came back?

Email me your address, I'll send you my copies.

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!

First, I don't think there's anything we could do to repay the debt that we owe Christ for His sacrifice on the cross, but that's not what He intended. He was the perfect representation of love, which means selfless giving without expecting anything back... and that includes not expecting people to believe in Him, or God, or Heaven, Hell, or Eternity. The very notion that God has provided us with a discernable, easy choice means that he wants us to share that same capacity for love that Christ showed, because love is all about a conscious choice.

2) Christ's sacrifice was intended to remove the guilt burden of our sin as defined by the law. I don't see any place for ritualism, and it certainly (as the Bible teaches) doesn't play a crucial part in our eternal destiny. Christ chastised the Pharisees for the exact same thing. What God wants.. what Jesus wanted... was belief, faith, and trust in Him, that He was God and Lord.

"fun to funky, we know Major Tom's a junkie."

Sorry, had to, couldn't get it out of my head.

On the nail, dearie, on the nail.

"It's a time of renewal, a time to atone for past transgressions...I still took with me some of the valuable lessons."

Who did you seek atonement from? I mean this in a practical sense. It's hard enough for Christians to honestly seek this with God. I just wondered if you, as an atheist, actually practiced this Lent tradition/lesson with other people.

And though the question sounds coarse, I mean no offense. I am not an atheist, so I am just curious about your point of view.

Thanks for your thoughts, Michele. I appreciate your honesty and candidness.

I am reminded of a relatively famous quote by the apologist, C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity:

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic ‑on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg‑ or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the son of God: or else a madman or something worse.

You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

You can't have faith through reason. You either have it, or you don't. It's a belief in something that simply cannot be rationally proven.

Nevertheless, I absolutely agree that you don't have to have faith in Jesus to know that he was a wise man and has positively impacted the world. That whole "love your enemies" thing was a big, big deal. Thanks for sharing this.

That was incredible.

A succinct, from the heart, explanation of why you believe in the morality Jesus taught but not the dogma. It is similar to my own beliefs, but more eloquently stated than I could ever manage.

What, you don't have enough enemies?

Oh, and was I the only one who, upon reading "drop and give me twenty Hail Mary's" starting thinking "Catholic girls, do you know how they go?"

I'm sorry about that last bit, but yes I did have to type that.

This is really a great piece you've written here. You have tempted me beyond my discipline.

You know there are numerous kinds of Christians, and like in anything else, the loudest ones get noticed. That's not the kind I am.

Just FYI, there is a denomination that does not require belief for salvation, nor does it think a slick sales pitch helps anything. There is a denomination that believes that the scripture is for guidance and comfort, and never to be argued nor forced.

We don't have telethons nor missions to africa. "Church" never means the building we meet in. We are family to one another, like distant cousins, all.

When I see someone as yourself, I offer that comfort, because that person is family too.

I hope this makes you feel better.

I highly recommend "Transforming Grace" by Jerry Bridges. An amazing insight that frees one from the works mentality.

That was a very honest post. I am always amazed at the different experiences we all have with the Catholic Church. I grew up methodist, but not a really religious home. I wrote a piece a while back about my dad who was a believer later on in his life, but not religious. But like you, when he was young he decided to live a moral life even without faith. I think that you would like. Let me know if you want to read it.
I also loved Christ young. Who could not admire the historical Jesus? Perhaps the difference in our youth is that I noticed that you never say you experienced Christ, felt Him, had the real knowledge in your soul that he was a part of you.
It seems you saw Him as "there" instead of "here." I became a Catholic at 24 after years of a spirtual journey. I truly love the traditions of the Church, they give me comfort and keep me strong.
But whoever said that Christ wouldn't want you, couldn't be more wrong. He takes us any way he can get us. Perhaps you can't let go of your feelings for the traditions and such is God's way of nudging you, letting you know He is still around if you ever decide to believe again.

Hope that didn't sound preachy, didn't mean for it to.

Actually, there is NO documented proof during the time frame (4bc-35ad) that points to a historically jesus. Google it.

so i just read most of that post out loud to a guy at work. we both thought it was pretty cool.

i had actually just finished telling him how i loved reading your site because you're more fun to read and agree with me on more issues than many of my fellow Christians.

i was wondering (i've got to get back to work, lunch break and all) if you've got any posts that talk about how you came to realize you didn't believe in God or why you don't?

Michele, I know the last thing you would want from yet another post about the subject at hand would be the "you are wrong" sort, but I cannot help but think that someone somewhere misguided you on the spiritual path. Jesus admonished hsi followers that above all things to not prevent the little ones from approaching him, and while I think your sense of guilt was a so-called "proper" reaction, I have to wonder if someone somewhere lesser in their faith than you allowed you to be swept away by false conclusions. For my own part as a former ROMAN Catholic, I think you were failed by someone who did not nurture your young feelings towards the bigger issue at hand in Christ's teachings : that there IS nothing that you could do to repay him. I think that is the AWESOME thing about Christ's passion. It is something that is so beyond our limited understanding that our various reactions to it waffle either into unthinking dogma or a complete refutation of faith. The very fact that you are thinking about faith AS an atheist says more about you and search for it than any self-proclaimed believer. I believe as a very imperfect follower of Christ that the realization taht there is nothing that we can do to repay Him for his Sacrifice does not necessarily lead to Despair. The point of the Sacrifice was not to make you Grieve. It was to open the Way. And whatever Way God has made for each of us, that is HIS mystery to fulfil. Faith is something to be worked at. Faith is NOT Utopia in the Flesh. Faith is Everyday, rising again and again like a Phoenix.

And God loves best those who are broken the most. That was the point of Christ's sacrifice : even the most unworthy had a way back.

And as an aside, this is what I believe the RCC FAILS in teaching. As a former RCCer, I can look back on what I grew up with and see nothing but a concerted effort to teach me that I should not worry about the person God made me to be, but rather give to an institution that which God had already claimed. The RCC is more concerned with unquestioning loyalty than it is the spiritual welfare of each individual in the church. Every time I tell an RCCer that I left that church, they want to know : when will you be comign back? Not "have you found God?" or do you believe in God"...but "why do you hate the Pope and will you be coming back?"

Put not your faith in Men.

Thank you for sharing your insights into and from your journey.

My father had the same components of being raised Catholic and then becoming an atheist fairly early on. I feel you have helped me gain a window on something within him that he could never share ( being very private about his inner workings, but not about his atheist convictions).

I agree that we should embrace what makes us a better person- and hope you don't mind that I think it is something biblical: the Phillipians passage..."whatsoever is of good report...think on these things",etc)

I appreciate the thoughts of this post, so much.