This past Wednesday was the beginning of Lent--the Ash Wednesday without which Fat Tuesday would not exist. (It's surprising the number of people who know about the Tuesday, but nothing about the Wednesday; Mardi Gras, as a character remarked in Tom Robbins' Jitterbug Perfume, has become just one more party, not a somewhat poignant feast before fasting.) There's a lot that can be said on the subject of Ash Wednesday, fasting, repentance, sin, etc., but here's my slight contribution: I think a good, if not the best, Ash Wednesday comic strip is one from Pearls Before Swine.
(Rat and Goat are sitting together)
Rat: I think I'd be much more likely to be religious if it wasn't for all that 'love your neighbor' stuff.
Goat: And why is that?
Rat: Because I hate my neighbors...They have barking dogs and car alarms and sometimes they even try to talk to me.
(Goat stares at Rat for a long time)
Goat: Your soul's so dark it smudges mine.
Rat: Hey... maybe I could love your neighbors...I never have to see them.
Okay, I probably am only associating this with Ash Wednesday because of that "smudge" (I went to an early AW mass year before last and had people telling me I had a smudge on my head the rest of the day; one nice lady was going for a kleenex before I explained!), but the fallen human nature and spiritual laziness it points to are Ash Wednesday themes. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we have all fallen short. The strip also points to the year-round difficulty of loving our neighbors, who--bless their hearts--have also fallen short. I think the best hope of humanity lies in praying for our enemies and trying to love our neighbors (and that it would still lie there even if the God-stuff weren't true), but nobody ever said it was going to be easy. And I won't say how much I resemble Rat.
Lent leads up to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. A question I've been asked is, "Why did Jesus have to die?" I guess the answer is that he didn't have to, that that is just the way God chose to do it. Which just leads to another why, and I can't really answer it. I know a bit about sacrificial lambs atoning for sin and the Suffering Servant and Messiah prophecies, but this is a deep question that has troubled wiser people than I. I don't mean to trivialize any of this when I suggest that a Bloom County cartoon may suggest a possible partial answer.
(Opus, the orphan penguin who yearns for a mother, has been calling Dial-a-Mom to listen to loving advice, and on this call he interrupts to yell into the phone)
Opus: Mom, get out of my life you narrow-minded, meddling busy-body!!
Dial-a-Mom: Okay, but always know that I would gladly rip both my legs off and feed them to crocodiles to save your life.
Opus: (looking at readers) God, how I need to hear that now and then.
Maybe that's part of the reason Jesus had to die? We are all orphans who yearn for our True Parent and who sometimes need to hear that that Parent loves us so much He'd endure even a bloody death to save us. The Crucifixion shows not just that He would but that He already has.