Over at First Things I read a wonderful essay on the Era of the Narcissist. Head over there and read it for yourself. It is a good read that challenges us with what we have chosen to become as a society and as individuals.
Aaron Kheriaty begins his piece with the marvelous paradox of all the astonishing features of the medieval cathedrals, one feature must stand out as particularly surprising to the modern mind: We have no idea who designed and built them. How out of keeping for the culture of ME! He continues Why build the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres if you can’t take credit for it? No lasting fame? No immortalized human glory? We are, if not scandalized, at the very least perplexed by the humility of these forgotten artists who labored in obscurity. Do and disappear?
I read these words on Shrove Tuesday, the day when Christians let it all hang out in a vast celebration of ME before Lent begins and we try, at least, to focus on Christ and the path of suffering that leads us to forgiveness, life, and salvation. In New Orleans the Mardi Gras has been in full swing since an early party start with the victory of the Saints in the SuperBowl. Lord knows that New Orleans hardly needs an excuse to start the party early but this is a more understandable one for the down but not out city. Now it is not fair to single out this celebration since it is mirrored in small measures all across the world.
It seems, however, that the problem we have is not celebrating me, but finding a reason to stop the celebration of self that characterizes our modern day culture. We have so many things to say that we cannot be without cell phone to speak or text what we are doing, how we are feeling, and any other suitable trivia that needs telling. We have a whole pattern of social networking from Facebook and MySpace to twitter in which to post our happenings, our comments, our pictures, our music favs, and every other banal detail of our otherwise ordinary lives. We value privacy yet we seem intent upon exposing ourselves to the scrutiny of the world for every private detail of our lives (from sex to scandal to surgery to the scintillating details of our bowels).
Oh, how out of place Lent is. Think of the architectural perspective of those medieval superstructures created to house the family of God. They were among the largest of buildings ever constructed in their day and still they stand while our modern day steel and glass structures are torn down and rebuilt to new architectural fancy. In Pontiac, Michigan, they sold the Silverdome for $583,000 because nobody wanted this huge icon of another era but when in Paris, who will not make the obligatory trip to Notre Dame to marvel at this icon of another era. These cathedral structures that were designed by anonymous visionaries and built by anonymous artisans were created to make you feel small. The soaring heights and tall steeples, the vast expanse of glass and high arches, the long aisles from entry to altar... all of them to make you feel small.
But we do not want to feel small. We want to be big -- the center of attention. In this respect, Lent is the hardest season of all for us. It is hard to focus our attention off ourselves and on to someone else -- even Jesus. It may seem like a help to get it all out of our system in one big party but binges seldom satisfy our wants and longings enough to prevent further binges. So what then is Shrove Tuesday (or if another ethnic background, Fat Tuesday or Fastnacht).
The word shrove is the past tense of the English verb shrive, which means to obtain absolution for one's sins by way of confession and doing penance. During the week before Lent, sometimes called Shrovetide in English, Christians were expected to go to confession in preparation for the penitential season of turning to God -- hardly the same idea as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras.
But shrive is exactly what we need to do -- not out of some sense of duty or obligation but out of the sheer delight of a mercy great enough to encompass our sin and a grace strong enough to enter the messy fray of our sinful world, suffer the burden of our fallen estate, and die the death that was ours to die. On Shrove Tuesday, before we enter into the holy season of contemplation of our Savior's Passion, we move aside the ME that gets in the way of THEE -- we do this not by rearranging the furniture but by the thorough cleansing of confession and absolution. Lest we forget to do this on the day before, the Ash Wednesday liturgy begins with this solemn act of penance just before the ashes are marked into our foreheads (but in the sign of a cross).
Reflective of the Enlightenment's love of self no longer consigned to the shadows, stands Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, a book he dedicated “to me, with the admiration I owe myself.” The book opens with these lines: “I have entered upon a performance which is without example, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I mean to present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this man shall be myself.”
Instead we need to learn from the Psalmist, Not unto us, o Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory... or better yet Non nobis domine, domine, non nobis domine, sed nomine, sed nomine tuo da gloriam... Psalm 115:1.