Running Like a Roman (A Word For Ash Wednesday)

It was another one of those festivals for which the ancient Romans were so famous…sort of like a New Orleans Mardi Gras and a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade all rolled into one. The Lupercalia ceremony itself was a fairly peculiar one, however.

For after choosing two young boys from among all those of noble birth, their foreheads were touched with blood and then wiped off with sheep’s wool that had been dipped in milk. The two young fellows were then supposed to throw their heads back and laugh, running all through the streets of Rome and lashing about them with thongs made from goatskin.

What made it even more exciting, however, was that young Roman girls would crowd the streets and–like bridesmaids going for the bouquet–jostle and shove in order to make at least a passing physical contact with the runners. For just a lash of those special thongs was thought to make them better able to bear children one day.

Of course, no one ever said that ancient Romans had a clear understanding of biology, but in a society which likewise little understood the true value and equality of women, increasing the odds of one’s fertility was a definite plus.

What brings it all to mind, however, is simply the fact that the goatskin thongs were called februa, and the act of flinging them about, the februatio. And at the base of both words–from which the name of the current month long ago also came–was a Latin word which meant simply “to purify.”

At least once a year, thus, even those ancient Roman pagans must have intuitively felt a need to somehow “purify” themselves and make their lives ready for the annual time of new birth that the coming of the spring symbolized.

All of which is perhaps why when the Christian Church centuries later recognized the need for such a season of penitence and preparation within the life of its own members that they settled upon the idea of Lent, taking the term itself from the Anglo-Saxon word lenctin which referred to the lengthening of days each spring.

They likewise determined to begin that period during February, that “month of purification,” and to mark its start with the imposition of ashes, a traditional symbol of inner repentance as noted in such Old Testament passages as Job 42, 2 Samuel 13, Esther 4, and Isaiah 61, just to name a few.

Of course, many believers today will never have even thought of observing Lent, particularly if they grew up Protestant and assumed the whole idea was something only Catholics did, not realizing that the idea actually predates the Catholic-Protestant division within Christianity by almost a thousand years.

And likewise, the whole notion of “giving up” something for the season may seem as silly to some as running through the streets of Rome flailing goat-thongs about your head. (As a child, in fact, I once tried to give up Sunday School for Lent, until my mother exercised her spiritual veto, cleverly pointing out to me that Sundays are not technically a part of the forty days of Lent at all.)

Still, whether you choose to fast or similarly to deny yourself a special treat for the coming season, I have a feeling that each of us could benefit from intentionally taking some time to re-examine our own spiritual lives and see what kind of “purifying” we might like the Lord to do in us as well.

The annual cycle all begins again this week on Ash Wednesday, February 18. If you see folks walking about that day with the slightest trace of an ashen cross on their foreheads, thus, it’s not because they just didn’t wash well or misapplied their makeup. And though we can be confident that there is no magic in touching them, it might not be a bad idea to hang around them.

For when all is said and done, wouldn’t you really rather be among those who are at least trying to get their act together and live for the Lord, than be counted with those who have decided to make no pretense at all about it, and only want to serve themselves?

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One Response to Running Like a Roman (A Word For Ash Wednesday)

  1. Wes Whiddon says:

    I must confess that, in my prior life as a Baptist, I had Catholic friends who, on Ash Wednesday (which to most people is just another hump day), seemed to have bumped their head into something and forgot to wipe it off. Most of the time the blemish didn’t look like a cross so maybe I could be excused…or not. What we can’t be excused of, though, is mistaking that smudge on our forehead for just palm ashes and oil. To me it doesn’t necessarily mean giving up something, it means living a life free of sin and doubt. A tall order in today’s secular society. Thanks for a great post, Chap. Looking forward to many more.

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