Today is Tuesday, February 5 (just a friendly reminder for those of you who, this early in the semester, are sleep deprived) and February 5 means different things depending on whose calendar you’re looking at. For most of the United States, today is “Super Tuesday”, the day on which one of the presumptive nominees in each major political party will attempt to knock out the competition in the perfect storm of primaries which aggregates today. For the residents of New Orleans and Rio de Janiero, today is either “Mardi Gras” or “Carnival”, a day on which you dress up in festive clothes, parade around to festive music, drink a lot, and generally behave like an idiot. For most Episcopalians, today is “Shrove Tuesday”, a day on which the men of the parish will ceremonially don aprons and wield spatulas, serving up dreadfully overcooked sausages and rubbery pancakes as a prequel to our Lenten observance. I don’t know about you, but most Shrove Tuesday dinners make me want to abstain from eating entirely and forever.
And for those of us observing a more finely-tuned liturgical calendar, today is the day when we remember the Martyrs of Japan, 6 Franciscan friars and 20 of their converts who were crucified on this day in 1597. However you understand the cross-cultural missionary enterprise of the early modern era, such a loss still has the power to move and to shock. And because this is the day before we begin whatever Lenten observance we have figured out for ourselves, the Gospel for today serves both to honor the Martyrs of Japan and to remind us of what it is we’re (individually and together) headed for:
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” [Mark 8]
We are, metaphorically, perched on the verge of Lent. And Jesus’s strong insistence on the way of the cross as the way of life is, for us first-world privileged Christians, profoundly counter-cultural. The message our culture sends us is a message of grasping after something: you preserve your life by beating out the other guy. For Jesus and his followers, you preserve your life by what the theologian Sallie McFague calls “cruciform living.”
This last weekend I participated in a retreat on environmental theology. The focus of the retreat was twofold: for the first part we tried to understand how Christians might properly understand the theological meaning of nature. For the second we asked the harder question, a version of the one persistently posed by Aristotle: “How, then, shall we live?” . One of the readings we discussed in the second part was a selection from Sallie McFague’s book, Life Abundant. Here is what she says:
We cannot, in good conscience “love the world”–its snowcapped mountains and panda bears–while at the same time destroying it and allowing our less well- off sisters and brothers to sink into deeper poverty. Hence, I believe Christian discipleship for twenty-first-century North American Christians means “cruciform living,” an alternative notion of the abundant life, which will involve a philosophy of “enoughness,” limitations on energy use, and sacrifice for the
sake of others. For us privileged Christians a “cross-shaped life” will not be primarily what Christ does for us, but what we can do for others.” [McFague, Life Abundant, p. 14]
A philosophy of “enoughness”, though, is a hard bargain for the likes of you and me. Speaking only for myself, with relation to things I am like a morbidly obese person who no longer know when he is full. I do not have trustworthy judgment when it comes to knowing how much is enough. And I’m a person who reads the Bible and goes to church every day. So if we Christians don’t ever quite know what “enough” is, imagine how hard it is for the others in our culture who have been led to believe that one is satisfied only when one is stuffed.
So one thing our Gospel suggests at least to me on the verge of Lent is a Lenten practice of what Sallie McFague calls “enoughness.” Can I live even for 40 days trying to regain a trustworthy sense of what is enough–enough food, enough money, enough energy use, enough books and cd’s and the like? One sense in which the cross speaks to us on Shrove Tuesday is the sense of “enoughness.” Jesus lived an abundant life in the midst of deprivation, and he called others to share that life. “Cruciform living” means living in such a generosity of spirit and practice that allows the underlying abundance of God’s creation to shine through. This is one way in which the cross speaks to us perched on the verge of Lent.
But there is another. For the retreat we also read a brilliant and hopeful and disturbing essay by Rebecca Solnit from the July, 2007 issue of Harper’s magazine called “Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape.” Solnit’s article describes both the industrial deterioration of Detroit and the surprising rebirth of local agriculture in the vacant blocks of open land left by the razed and burn-out buildings. Here is one of the more provocative things she observes as she watches the painful but inspiring new life which follows economic devastation:
The free-range chickens and Priuses are great, but they alone aren’t adequate tools for creating a truly different society and ecology. The future, at least the sustainable one, the one in which we will survive, isn’t going to be invented by people who are happily surrendering selective bits and pieces of environmentally unsound privilege. It’s going to be made by those who had all that taken away from them or never had it in the first place. [Harper’s, July 2007, p. 73]
In other words, if we’re really talking about “cruciform living,” then as a friend of mine observed at this weekend, “something has to die” before this rebirth can begin. That something is obviously the exploitive consumerist fantasy in which all of us seem to live and move and have our being. Detroit is coming to life precisely because it exhibits what Rebecca Solnit calls “the first signs of an unsettling of the very premises of colonial expansion.” [p.73] We cannot live out the logic of the cross only by “happily surrendering slective bits and pieces of environmentally unsound privilege.” So our Lenten cruciform observance must point us both to self-denial and to advocacy. Only as Christians witness, as individuals and as a community, to a truly communitarian and abundant way of living can we be truly said to be walking the way of the cross.
Which means, among other things, that rightly understood, Super Tuesday is as much a Christian observance as Shrove Tuesday, even as holy as the Feast of the Martyrs of Japan. How you vote (and not just that you vote) is as important as what you give up over these next forty days and beyond. May the One who walked with the Franciscans in Japan in the 16th century in their martyrdom walk with us in America now in our strivings toward “cruciform living,” that God’s world and the creatures who inhabit it may know life abundant as well. Amen.