Ash Wednesday is the most countercultural day of the year. Repent! Turn away from sin! Now what could be more un-American than repentance and the admission of sin? Denial of guilt may be a human problem haunting each conscience and every culture, but we seem to have made a science of it. It is supposedly good news that a savior has come to take away the sins of the world, but there’s a problem right at the heart of the message. Do we really have any sins to be forgiven? Don’t we all mean well? And what is sin, anyway? Who’s to say? as one college student asked. About the only things that seem to be acknowledged as sins are smoking and being fat. And we have Nicorette and Jenny Craig for them. (Some would add killing non-human animals. Human animals are O.K. to kill).
Denial of sin may be as bad as sin itself. If there is such a thing as moral failure, the denial of the fact only intensifies the failure. We seem to learn denial from our earliest years. Some toddlers invent a little friend or evil twin to blame for mistakes. Others, like four-year-olds I have known off and on over the decades, just accuse the nearest bystander. See what you made me do! Accepting and acknowledging sinfulness may well be the last thing we really want to learnif ever.
Denial and projection of guilt are tactics employed not only by individuals. Nations, classes, genders and religions easily and often demonize the enemy while protesting their own innocence. Imagine you live in Iran or have a cousin in Al Qaeda. Whose sins do you seriously ponder? Who are for you the evil ones? Then come back home to the United States and think about the sins we see and do not see in the world. Who are our evil ones? I am not arguing moral equivalence here. I am pointing out the omnipresence of sin-denial and suggesting how much is lost by it.
Rather than admit sin, the best we seem to be able to do is admit that we made a mistake. Better yet, A mistake was made. The passive voice is always more palatable. Something bad happened while I was in the vicinity. Admitting even that much is like having teeth pulled. The most common confession we hear these days is this: If anyone was offended, I’m sorry they feel that way. As Fred Barnes pointed out one Friday on Fox News (Fair and Balanced as Always), A president never makes mistakes. Barnes was approving the president’s unwillingness to admit that he had any regrets about anything, other than having said, Bring it on.
The others are the bad guys, whether Democrats or Republicans, bishops or the Voice of the Faithful, feminists or clericalist priests. Amid all this denial however, one might hope that those who supposedly believe in sin as well as the need to repent would show us a good example of the admission of sin.
Think of the opportunities lost for repentance and reform in the church. Can the closing of parishes ever be acknowledged as a failure, a loss, a wound and not a managerial decision? Indeed, there are church leaders who have expressed solidarity with those who grieve the loss of their special home of worship; but many faithful Catholics get the impression that it is time to move on, not time to question whether we are called to a change of heart, a rebirth of zeal or an examination of priorities.
The saddest example has been seen in the church’s handling of the priest and sexual abuse scandal. I am open to correction on this point, but I have not seen or read of any case of a bishop or priest actually admitting guilt, sorrow and repentance. In a church that has traditionally seen some of the most severe judgments passed upon the sexual sins of its laypeople, this is discouraging, to say the least. Have there been any parishes that have been visited by a priest found guilty, not of sin alone, but of crime, who would speak honestly of his sins, the ways of temptation, the seductions of deception and the possibilities of healing grace?
We all lose at this game of denial. The only winners are the lawyers and their courts, where, if things are not settled in secrecy, people plead no contest or not guilty, and we never face the reality, whether the verdict be guilty or not.
When we understand that the heart of Lent is the acknowledgment of our sinfulness and the acceptance of our creatureliness, it becomes clear why it is so countercultural.
It is hard to imagine that clever entrepreneurs could ever market greeting cards for Lent, as we do for almost every other spiritual feast day. We can turn Christmas into a buying spree, Easter into a candy hunt. Baptisms, marriages and anniversaries are occasions for gift lists. But Lent? How could we market it? Develop a line of Happy Repentance Hallmark Cards with little plastic packets of ashes on the inside, under the sentiment, May you be given the grace to know and admit your sins? Won’t work.
But strangely, Ash Wednesday, at least in my part of the world, is a day that seems to draw more people to worship than any other day that is not required by church law. Inner-city churches, college chapels and suburban parishes suddenly come alive with people who will even wear their ashes throughout the day. Maybe that is because Lent cannot be colonized by capitalism.
Perhaps on Ash Wednesday people know deeper truths: that there are some threats jolly consumerism can never buy off. There are some wounds no lawsuit can heal.