Edging Toward Lent

Men with blades!

There were men with blades.

Sound dangerous? Well, I suppose so, in the same way a shortstop courts danger while planting his feet by second base when a runner from first goes airborne, hurtling toward the shortstop’s vulnerable legs. Or like a basketball player leaping for a rebound, fighting a rival player for the ball, sharp elbows punching face and chest, as she inevitably plummets, intertwined with the other, onto a hardwood floor.

I recall my first—and still only—professional hockey game. As with any sport, there was danger. Those blades on the skates were sharp. The hockey puck, bagel-sized and stone-hard, traveled at breakneck speeds.

So, yes, dangerous. Controlled and chaotic. But, truth be told, I had no idea what was going on. I was there because my wife and I were invited to attend a fundraiser. The hockey team, bless their community outreach efforts, was sponsoring a local non-profit’s work.

Did I have fun?

Not really. Except for those blades and that puck, hockey’s an enigma to me. I get national pride goose bumps at reruns of the 1980 “miracle on ice” when the American Olympic hockey team whupped the U.S.S.R. But that’s cultural knowledge. And some readers, since 1980 could be considered ancient history, might wonder, “What’s a U.S.S.R.?”

(Hey, do your own research!)

But I know baseball! How about that infield fly rule? Or a Texas leaguer? I can also talk basketball. Want to discuss when a zone instead of man-to-man defense should be used? Or—so casually mentioned in the second paragraph above—what a rebound is?

Every sport has its history, language, and rules.

I’m sure many adore hockey. But I was a kid raised in sun-kissed California. For me, ice was plopped into summertime sweet tea. Puck was a character in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What were those men with blades doing out there? I had no idea.

Once I went to a concert—Bach’s St. Matthew Passion—with a friend who was Jewish. Early on, she leaned close and whispered, as Bach’s brilliance filled the hall, “You know the story, don’t you?” She loved the music, but for a Jew, the Gospel of Matthew wasn’t high on her reading list. I was able, in return whispers, to explain a few basics. Knowledge can be a helpful addition to any experience.

And yet, even knowledge is inadequate.

For Christians, we’ll soon begin Lent (February 14 is, er, game time for Ash Wednesday). One of the Biblical readings underscoring this season often comes from John’s Gospel.

Early in Jesus’ ministry, a well-heeled scholar named Nicodemus visited the Nazarene just before the Tonight Show started. Jimmy Fallon’s monologue was a commercial break away. He arrived, in the dark of the night, because he’s flummoxed. Knowledge has failed him. The learned gentleman might know his faith’s history, language, and commandments, but Jesus had said and done things that put Nicodemus on edge. The religious leader is a man with the blade of uncertainty pressing against his heart.

Faith, growing and restless, should unsettle us. Knowledge will take us part of the way, but it will never be enough. The Muslim might explain Ramadan’s significance, but halfway through that sacred month, with each day devoted to a fast, to the absence of food, an empty, grumbling stomach may reveal more than mere religious definitions.

At the beginning of Christian Lent, ashes are placed on foreheads. How strange. Can I explain Ash Wednesday to you? Probably. But also, probably not. I know ashes have long symbolized an outward sign of repentance. We are self-centered and the humbling ashes are visual reminders that God desires us to be selfless. Will I remember I am forgiven? Will I live forgiving others? Joel 2:13 will probably be read. Oh, how the Holy longs for believers to “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” What will I choose upon hearing a call for inward change; for a heart—for my heart—to be open to suffering and healing?

Still it’s all odd. Every new and old faith tradition—Latter Day Saints, Sikhs, Anabaptists, Jews and so on—oft remains odd when only defined by sentences on a page. Rend you heart, don’t just read words filling the paper.

I watched the hockey game. I didn’t know what was going on.

Most of what will get inside our skin, and might transform our soul, will never happen when we are spectators. Is basketball better than hockey? Or Christianity better than Buddhism? Will going to church or temple or mosque make me better? Wrong questions.

Where, like Nicodemus, will I cross a Holy threshold? I imagine he no longer wanted to be a spectator, but a participant. The blade’s edge pierced his heart, a longing for more, causing him to risk new and different questions. He knew he would never know enough without taking the next dangerous step.

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