In Spanish it is called tira y aloja, literally, “pull and loosen.” The Italians have two different phrases, depending upon whether one is speaking figuratively or literally. The figurative, braccio di ferro, means “arm of iron.” The game itself is called tiro alla fune, “pull at the rope.” That is quite close to the French tir à la corde. One of our English terms is prosaic, “rope pull,” like the German Tauziehen. The other is more provocative, bringing out the essentially communal nature of the game: “tug of war.”
Tug of war builds teams, because it requires a disparate group of people to pull as one. Their individual strengths are multiplied, and weakness anywhere in the line can be exploited. As any camp counselor knows, if you want strangers to begin to rely on each other, to see that they are all in this together, make them play tug of war.
Each year, the church has her own version of the same. Ash Wednesday is a team sport. Last time I checked, people were sinning every day. And every day, a lot of people repent of their sins to live the Gospel more faithfully. So, why make a day of it, one that grows more popular with Christians of every sort each year?
The reason we mark ourselves this day with ashes, right on the forehead, where everyone can see them, is to tell the world and each other that we are all in this together.
The reason we mark ourselves this day with ashes, right on the forehead, where everyone can see them, is to tell the world and each other that we are all in this together. When any saint resists sin and remains faithful to the Gospel, the whole line of faith grows taut. When we choose to sin, we slacken the very line of salvation.
We live in a time so rooted in the individual—my desires, my rights, my need to be who I am—that it’s very difficult for us to see that individuals must rise above themselves to become a community, to be a country, to be church. But today we hear:
Blow the trumpet in Zion!
proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep,
And say, “Spare, O Lord, your people,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’” (Jo 2:15-17).
We could do Ash Wednesday every day of the year or, at the very least, every Wednesday, but it would lose much of its illustrative power. Smearing each other with ash, the first step toward washing each other at Easter with the water of baptism, is how we annually remind ourselves that salvation is a tug of war. We stand with Christ and his saints. We depend upon each other. In the words of that great team player, St. Paul:
Working together, then,
we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
For he says:
In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you
Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:1-2).
Readings: Joel 2:12-18 2 Corinthians 5:20, 6:2 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18