Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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When Lent and Spring Training Coincide
A very early date for Easter this year means that Ash Wednesday coincides with the start of baseball’s spring training season. What’s the connection? Well, let’s see. Baseball bats are made of ash. OK, a stretch. In Chicago long suffering Cubs fans can certainly understand the sentiments of the Ash Wednesday liturgy as they face yet another season of alleged rebuilding: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!” All right, an even bigger stretch, though funny in a grim sort of way.
Historically Lent was a time for new Christians to prepare for the rites of initiation. It was a time of humbling, of re-learning our ultimate dependence on Jesus Christ, of turning our pretensions and egoisms to ashes and to dust, of engaging in the spiritual disciplines that remind us that we are ultimately God’s inventions, not the creators of our own destiny. Lent puts us in our place – not Creator, but creature, but also beloved, chosen. From Christianity’s early centuries Lent formed and continues to forms communities of practices ancient in their origin yet contemporary in their power – prayer, hospitality, sabbath, justice.
When former Cubs player Ryne Sandberg was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame, he said this:
“These guys sitting up here [in the Baseball Hall of Fame] did not pave the way for the rest of us so that players could swing for the fences every time up and forget how to move a runner over to third. It’s disrespectful to them, to you, and to the game of baseball that we played growing up. Respect. A lot of people say this honor today validates my career, but I didn’t work hard for validation. I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play it right and with respect. . . . If this validates anything, it’s that guys who taught me the game did what they were supposed to do and I did what I was supposed to do.”
Sandberg describes being incorporated into a community, an institution, where attention to disciplines practiced and evolved over generations evokes the good, the true, and the beautiful. Individual gifts and effort count, to be sure. But it’s a community where the discipline of humbling oneself with deep respect to the institution of baseball itself is what matters most. “I received what was handed over to me,” the apostle says. It’s about faithful honoring of tradition rather than invention and short cuts.
This is a long way from the steroid soaked world of much of modern sports. Similarly, Christian faith as we ought to practice it is a long way from the culture of self-absorption, self-invention and self-aggrandizement so prevalent around us. Ash Wednesday’s countercultural message is that while we are assigned in creation to a profoundly important and blessed place, it is ultimately a profoundly dependent place. The imposition of ashes marks us as practitioners of ancient and enduring disciplines, making visible the mark of baptism once placed on that same forehead. We belong to God, not to ourselves; it is in the community of faith stretching back through time and out through space that we take our proper place.
The famed baseball player said it well: “I did what I was supposed to do.” That’s really what Lent is all about as well – learning again to live as we’re supposed to live.
John H. Thomas
Ash Wednesday, 2013