Having social media feeds that are overwhelmed by churchy things is something of an occupational hazard. As one might expect, this ramps up in anticipation of important religious days. Last week, with the beginning of Lent, was a busy time.
The earnest and heartfelt posts are balanced out by those that are perhaps a bit less… serious-minded. A pictorial guide to Ash-Wednesday ashes always surfaces, for example, or a nice call to “keep calm and remember you will die.” Then there are the friendly professional reminders of the words for administering ashes on Ash Wednesday. They are not, in fact these:
“Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Can you spot the mistake? It’s an added word: but. Remember that you are but dust. Remember that you are merely dust. It makes perfect grammatical sense, and even has that slightly archaic flair beloved of so many of us prayer book-ers, mirroring the 1928 prayer book’s psalter: “For he knoweth whereof we are made; he remembereth that we are but dust” (ps. 104:14).
The “but” is not included in the words prescribed for the service, however, and it’s probably a good thing, because when one is listening rather than reading, “but” and “butt” are fairly indistinguishable, and while remembering that we are dust is meant to be striking and a bit uncomfortable, I’m confident that no one wants to remember being “butt dust.”
Ash Wednesday is a somber day, and it’s beautiful. Reminding people of their mortality is a profound and moving thing, and doing this as part of an invitation to a season of fasting, repentance, and self-consideration is rich with meaning. But that doesn’t mean we have to be deadly serious about it. In fact, I’m inclined to feel quite the opposite. I think being able to laugh at our beliefs and practices is a sign of how seriously we take them.
I didn’t come up with this idea. As Madeleine L’Engle, my Episcopal muse, declares: “Let us dare to laugh at ourselves, healthy, affirmative laughter. Only when we take ourselves lightly can we take ourselves seriously, so that we are given the courage to say, ‘Yes! I dare disturb the universe’” (from her 1983 lecture, “Dare to Be Creative!”).
To be over-serious about anything—but, perhaps, particularly about those things that are nearest and dearest to our identities, including our religious practices and what we believe about God—is to sign its death warrant. Laughter and enjoyment give life. And that is why I will continue to share memes and laugh at butt dust—because in enjoying my faith, I am not ridiculing it or cheapening it, but feeding it and giving it life.
Teresa of Avila, known for her writings as a Christian mystic, reflected on the enjoyment of God:
“Enjoy Me.” Just these two words He spoke changed my life.
What a burden I thought I was to carry—
a crucifix, as did He.
Love once said to me, “I know a song,
Would you like to hear it?”
And laughter came from every brick in the street.
And from every pore
in the sky.
After a night of prayer, He
changed my life when He sang,
Lent is a somber season, but it is leading to great joy. It is recognition of our shortcomings with the knowledge that we are already forgiven. It is, as Orthodox Christians say, a “Bright Sadness.” So I wish for you and invite you to a holy Lent, one that may be difficult, but that is also filled with joy—and enjoyment.
Alissa Goudswaard Anderson (’10) lives with her husband Josh in New York City, where she is earning her Master of Divinity at General Theological Seminary. Alissa enjoys private kitchen dance parties, big Midwestern thunderstorms, and perusing other peoples’ bookshelves. For more, find her online at www.episcotheque.wordpress.com or tweet her @episcotheque.