Ash Me No More Questions – Thoughts on Ash Wednesday

As the day that kicks off the Catholic Church’s season of fasting and repentance, Ash Wednesday can feel like a pretty somber affair. But I don’t see it that way at all. I love Ash Wednesday. It always fills me with a resounding sense of purpose, mission and ownership of my faith.

img_1864Ash Wednesday forces you to come face-to-face with your faith…by putting a symbol of that faith right on your face. I’ve seen a bit of back-and-forth about the recent trend of posting your #Ashtag image of your ashes on social media. Some people say it contradicts the Ash Wednesday reading about not doing flashy signs of your faith in public so that you can get recognition from your peers. I’ve never quite understood this line of thinking. Sure, perhaps when Jesus was preaching there were religious leaders and others who showcased their pious acts in an effort to prove their status and holiness. There are still many people who do those kinds of things today. But I don’t think Jesus was talking about getting ashes on Ash Wednesday.

If anything, wearing ashes in public these days has become an almost countercultural act that is more isolating than empowering. Any reaction of “Oh, look how holy that guy is!” would be dripping with sarcasm, not respect. In today’s secular world, invading a newsfeed full of polarizing political posts and vapid pop culture nonsense with a photo of your ashes  is more an act of evangelizing than self-aggrandizing.

On Ash Wednesday, your Catholicism is no secret. It could be the one day a year that people in your office or at the store find out that you’re a practicing Catholic. Maybe they’ll ask you about it. Maybe they won’t. But maybe they’ll think about it later, and it will plant a seed that ends up making them go to Mass again for the first time in many Lents. If they’re not religious, maybe it will prompt them to discern some larger questions or at least want to know why so many seemingly sane people are walking around with dirt on their foreheads.

Beyond what your ash might do for someone who sees you wearing it, Lent is perhaps the most powerful liturgical season on a personal level—if you let it be. Much like New Year’s, Lent presents a wonderful opportunity to take stock and rejigger. The priest who gave today’s homily at the Mass I attended said that Lent represents God’s way of interrupting your life. This is a perfect way of thinking about it. Lent should upset the apple cart of your daily routine. It starts by making you wear ashes and turning your fingers black every time you unconsciously rub your forehead. Then you introduce the idea of sacrifice: what can you give up or add to your life for the next 40 days? It’s like taking your car in for a tuneup. Sometimes they change the oil or replace worn out tires. Other times they’re fixing the air conditioning or adding a new stereo. Lent is one of the few times when you can add by subtracting. You can rid yourself of that gunky oil. You can replace that flat tire with one that might be more expensive in the short-term but will ultimately get you better mileage.

And it all starts on Ash Wednesday. The possibilities are endless today. You need to have a realistic plan if you’re going to stick with it for the next 40 days, but you also need to believe that you are up for a true challenge, and that God’s grace is there to help you complete this sacrifice if you offer it up for Him. It’s not a holy diet. It’s an act of sacrifice.

This is my daughter’s first Ash Wednesday, which makes it all the more powerful to me. It is both my greatest responsibility and my greatest joy to pass on my Catholic faith to her. The ashes on my forehead are a reminder of my sinfulness, brokenness and failure—as well as the incredible truth that Jesus overcame the cross to rescue me from all of that darkness and lead me to eternal life. These are the things that I will need to help my children to understand. This is why I wear my ashes. And this is why I think everyone should see them–in the street, in the office or on Instagram.

I pray that you have a thoughtful and faithful Lent that leaves you more open to God’s plan for your life, more willing to share the good news of your faith with others, more aware of how temporary our Earthly lives really are, and more focused on what that means for the time you have left.

The Ramblings of a Joyful Cubs Fan

How do you start writing the blog post you always daydreamed about writing? The same way you live through that one experience you always daydreamed about experiencing. You just do it.

There’s no preparing for long-awaited moments of profound joy. The long wait actually seems to make you less likely to be prepared for them. It gives you more time to rehearse the moment in your mind and think about how you might react—or how you think you should react. But no regimen of mental gymnastics will ever prepare you for the actual experience of that moment’s arrival.

I should know. I’ve experienced two moments of profound joy in the last three months. Actually, within /exactly/ the last three months. On August 2, my daughter Madeline was born into this world after a nine-month wait. On November 2, the Chicago Cubs became the World Series champions after a 108-year wait.

I’m not equating the birth of my daughter to something as trivial as a sports title, I’m simply suggesting that maybe this Cubs championship isn’t as trivial as other athletic feats tend to be. There’s no denying the pool of profound joy into which the Second City has been willfully and unapologetically drowning itself since Bryzzo recorded the final out last night. We are witnesses to history—banishing our disbelief and blinking back tears.

But about those tears.

I knew I was going to cry when my daughter was born. As I age, my tear ducts have evidently weakened to such a point that I will weep openly at the dumbest, overly sentimental things. Throughout the pregnancy, I would become overwhelmed just thinking about the moment of her birth and the waterworks would begin. That was me tearing up in the back of the pregnancy class when they showed the birth videos.

Similarly, I assumed that my years of suffering at the hands of the Boys in Blue—and the thought of being alive to see them win it all when so many Cubs fans had lived and died empty-handed—would result in some sentiment pouring out of my eyes.

But in both cases, I was wrong. The excitement of these moments made any emotions beyond unbridled joy and relief almost impossible to express. When my daughter was born, I was just marveling at her as my wife held her to her chest. I didn’t even think to take photos…and I never forget to take photos. In the waning moments of last night’s Cubs game, I turned my phone’s video camera on before history unfolded so that it could be preserved and relived by the next branches of my Cubs fan family tree.

But again there were no tears. The rollercoaster of Game 7—heck, the entire series—had destroyed my mental image of how this moment would look and feel. When the game was horrifically tied up again, visions of Bartman and aborted countdowns to glory were running through my mind. So this is how it ends. The Cubs always find a way.

Maybe it’s because it was All Soul’s Day or maybe it was just a near death experience, but the great Cubs fans of the past were suddenly very present to me in my growing dread. Among others, my deceased maternal grandfather, a diehard fan who often referred to the team as the Flubs when things went south, scoffed angrily at the TV with me. My deceased neighbor, another diehard who frequently had choice words for any Cubs player who stood in the way of flying the W, was sitting next to me shaking his head in disgust. On the radio, the sound of Ron Coomer gave way to the only Ron I ever want to hear calling a Cubs game—and he let out a wail that rivaled the infamous Brant Brown affair.

The rain delay—God’s tears?—came in the nick of time and turned the Cubs fortunes around again. The poor souls in the room were free to go and enjoy the rest of the game elsewhere as the all-too-harrowing bottom of the tenth inning gave way to that monumental moment of surreality. Pat Hughes’ booming voice filled my ears as my eyes beheld a TV graphic previously reserved for jokes and movies. We are the champions.

With tears streaming down his face in a euphoric postgame interview before the champagne had even started flowing, Anthony Rizzo said a line that has been reverberating in my head ever since: “We are world champions for the rest of our lives.”

My tears didn’t arrive at the exact moment of childbirth or World Series berth. But they came eventually—when the excitement died down and the new reality set in. A change had been made. A page had been turned. And there is no going back.

I am a father. The Cubs are the champs.

I tear up now when my daughter smiles and coos and stares into the depths of my soul with her unconscionably big blue eyes. I tear up when I see something that reminds me that she won’t always be—and already isn’t—the tiny newborn who shocked me into non-photographing submission three months ago. I tear up when I think of the woman she could become and the things she could do and the lives she could touch.

Today the social media frenzy of Cubs tributes, remembrances and videos completely preoccupied my work day—an IV drip co-mingling with my Cubbie blue blood to finally let the tears rush forth.

The first thing to open the flood gates? A Budweiser-produced video of Harry Caray magically calling the 2016 Cubs World Series win. I watched it at least three times today, and there have been more tears every time.

Next came the Cubs-produced video of fans reacting to the tune of Eddie Vedder’s “Someday We’ll Go All the Way.”

And then there was this article about dying Cubs fans who gave out mere days before having their last request come to fruition. It’s honestly heart-wrenching to read.

These are the things that make this Cubs victory worthy of tears. It’s about so much more than just a sports team being the best and winning a title. It’s about childhood memories, families and generations. It’s about tradition and love. It’s about hope and regret.

Far better writers than me have waxed poetic on this subject lately, but so much of the experience of being a Cubs fan is a metaphor for the struggle of life. True determination doesn’t always lead to success, no matter how badly you want it, but faith can make that OK. And sometimes success will sneak up on you and make you wonder how it could possibly look so easy.

Unlike the 108 preceding years, this Cubs season was an uncharacteristic cake walk to the playoffs. For a fan who has seen his share of abysmal baseball at Wrigley, the struggle of the playoffs was a refreshing return to form. The Cubs are not a team that should simply waltz into the history books. They have to fake a heart attack and ride in on a gurney—taking a final bow to prove that everything is alright and that you shouldn’t have been so scared in the first place.

Just as fatherhood is forcing me to redefine essential parts of myself, so too will this new, winning identity demand an examination of the Cubs fan psyche. We are losers no more. The cool kids wear Cubs clothes now. The newest members of the fold—like my daughter—will have their baseball consciousness awaken right around the end of what could be a Cubs dynasty. They’ll watch replays of what we all just lived through last night and marvel at how Cubs veterans Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant look so youthful and boyish. They’ll be astounded to realize that Cubs manager David Ross hit his last home run as a player in Game 7 in 2016.

Beyond the box scores, what will it mean to be a fan of a consistently winning Cubs team when you haven’t experienced any of the heartache and frustration? That’s a moral dilemma I’m thankfully in no position to answer. My Cubs will always be the Little Engine That Couldn’t Until They Finally Could and the World Turned Upside Down.

The next few days will continue to be an emotional time for all Cubs fans, especially as tomorrow I will see my team take over Grant Park—a special honor that any Chicago kid who grew up in the 90s thought was reserved exclusively for Jordan and company.

But we’re here now. It finally happened. And we can let the tears out, because the Cubs are world champions for the rest of our lives.

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