Let me start off this blog by saying I'm not Catholic. To the extent that I have a religious background, it is Catholicism. But as an adult, I don't identify with any religious denomination. As I've said before, I just don't know. And I know that I don't know.
So for me, Ash Wednesday is not a particular day of penitence. But I do appreciate the sentiment. I sacrifice every day of my life, as I imagine everybody does. You have to in order to get through life's rich pageant of adversity. And I wish that more people would apply the renewed focus to sacrifice that Ash Wednesday brings to every moment of their lives.
Every year, we ask the question: "What are you giving up for Lent?" My conservative friend Nick Bouterie made an excellent point on Facebook today: He said that, as a devout Catholic, he can't eat a bologna sandwich on Friday, but he can whip up an elaborate Cajun seafood dish with all the trimmings.
It begs an interesting question: What exactly does it mean to sacrifice? Is it strictly adhering to loophole-laden dogma? Is it about the spirit of giving to others? Is it sensible self-improvement? Can it be all of these things? Something else entirely?
America, for better or worse, is a country that lives and dies by greed. We've been so conditioned to accrue wealth and consume that many of us have forgotten that not every aspect of life is about profit or having the latest gadget. We've forgotten that active citizenship, charity and humanity compose our DNA just as much as capitalism. But the rough economy has forced (or in some cases, rationalized) many of us to focus on our own pockets at the expense of big-picture issues.
How many times have we heard it? "We need to fix the economy and address the deficit. THEN we'll worry about the environment!" Or, "Obama should be focusing on jobs, not health care reform." To say nothing of the virulent anti-tax rhetoric that comes down to, "I hate paying taxes to help people I deem inferior to myself." That isn't to say that some of these aren't valid concerns. But our leaders often portray them as mutually exclusive and time-insensitive, which gives them a convenient out in sincerely addressing them. As a nation, we've never been more self-defeatingly selfish.
My reaction to this isn't anger — it's sadness. I feel that most people — even the loudest, meanest anarchist — is, deep down, someone who wants a fair shake and comfort for themselves and their families. And whether it's through genuine hardship, inflammatory rhetoric, apathy or any combination thereof, sacrifice (even self-sacrifice) seems out of vogue these days. Perhaps Ash Wednesday can help remind people that we're all in this together.