The Meaning of Lent: An Ash Wednesday Rant

This year, more than any in the past, I have noticed a lot of nonsense about Lent.  The number of silly recommendations for its observance seems to have grown exponentially:

  • Care for the poor
  • Give up plastic bags
  • Reduce your carbon footprint to zero 

Don’t misunderstand me.  I am not arguing that any of these things are not noble goals in and of themselves.  Caring for the poor is the obligation of any Christian, whether it is in political fashion or not (and not just in Lent).  Giving up plastic bags could be a good thing for us all to do.  There would be less junk in landfills across the country.  And reducing our carbon footprint is not a bad goal either — although how you do that and go to church, or light one at night escapes me — and then there is always the carbon footprint of India and China to worry about — but ok.

None of this has to do with Lent, however, and an earlier generation of spiritually wise women and men would point out that just because you avoid your own mortality and sin by focusing on social and ecological ills does not mean that you are not still running from your mortality and sin.  In fact, one might argue that the surest road to undermining any true humility that would sustain us in those efforts is the failure to begin by drawing closer to God.

Lent, starting stunningly with the obvious words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy is not about your politics: “You are dust and to dust you will return.” 

  • You are dust whether your carbon footprint is zero or not.
  • You are dust whether you care for the poor or not.
  • You are dust and one day you will fit in a plastic bag, whether you use them or not.

It is a false dichotomy to pit spiritual considerations against engagement with the needs of the world, but I suspect that the current crop of eco-socio-politico Lenten observances arises out of that dichotomy.  The first victim is the very engine of the church’s engagement with the world.  A knowledge of the two facts that are the basis for all spiritual wisdom and moral strength:

  • One, there is a God.
  • Two, you are not.

We are given to enough pride that there will never be a year when it isn’t appropriate to spend the Lenten season remembering those two pillars of all spiritual wisdom, balance, and focus.  And the pseudo-sophistication of alternative Lenten observances is not just distracting silliness, it is the stuff of a deeply misleading reinterpretation of a season rooted in the wisdom of calling the whole of our lives into question before the One who is God — including our politics. 

Lent: Don’t run from it.  Lean into it.  “You are dust and to dust you will return.”  It is time to reflect on that fact and there is a reason why the liturgy doesn’t give us any room to run.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.