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ESPN, Ash Wednesday, and the Risk of the Cross

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Feb. 24, 2015
Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/1DOLrVQ

I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of Ash Wednesday. It’s as if the impending prospect of 40 days of penance isn’t daunting enough, the Church had to throw in some extra fasting on the first day just to rub it in.

Let’s be honest, it’s a bit of a spiritual butt-kicking. And don’t I know I need a good butt-kicking every now and again, so I guess once a year ain’t bad. Plus, it does have its perks. Like seeing the rest of the world react to a bunch of people walking around with seemingly random black smears on their foreheads, for instance.

This past Ash Wednesday was no exception. Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh showed up to the NFL Combine with ashes on his forehead, and at least one Twitterer was worried he had sustained a bruise.

In case you were wondering, Harbaugh will apparently be giving up chocolate and bread for Lent.

But he wasn’t the only sports personality whose ashen forehead lit up the Twitterverse. Tony Reali has been hosting “Around The Horn”, a sports commentary show on ESPN, for over a decade. He recently became a contributor on “Good Morning America”, and just so happens to wear ashes on national TV every year on the first day of Lent, a fact that even Wikipedia has come to notice.

This year, he took to Twitter to respond to the many inevitable queries regarding the prominent black mark on his forehead:


 

 

 

 

There are a few more related Tweets in there that encourage further reflection beyond the scope of this piece. But here’s to these men for giving a great example of how to remain true to our faith in a country that largely suggests that we keep our religion to ourselves. Not to mention in an industry that typically keeps the hell out of religious conversations.

Credit is also due to ESPN and the leadership of the individual programs for letting Tony be Tony. It’s no small thing to feel comfortable enough at work to make a public declaration of faith, especially in a line of work where public means really public.

I couldn’t help but reflect on the freedoms we enjoy in this great country of ours to live our faith without fear, especially when a video was released recently of ISIS brutally slaying 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt. These men were murdered, it seems, for no other reason than the fact that they had the Sign of the Cross traced on their foreheads at Baptism, and Pope Francis has called them martyrs as a result.

So, if anyone felt a bit uneasy about the idea of walking around campus wearing the Sign of the Cross on their forehead, I’d invite them to reflect on the the fact that there are Christians who, as we speak, are walking around fearing for their lives. What a privilege it is, at least comparatively speaking, to be able to be publicly marked as Christian without fear of much more than a raised eyebrow or two.

If anyone has any trouble keeping their Lenten penances, for heaven’s sake, do it for our brother Christians of the Middle East and elsewhere, that they would have the strength to endure the persecutions that are leveled heavily against them.

Lent can be a funny time.  All sorts of seemingly random restrictions and traditions, including a charge to be simultaneously visible in our faith (forehead marks on Ash Wednesday, fish frys on Friday), while also to “not appear to be fasting”. It can be hard to see the point of it all, much less find a good, reasonable balance.

So what is the point? It’s not about being some sort of religious zealot or weirdo, and most of us, thankfully, aren’t being called to martyrdom. But, as Reali says, what’s really important is that he’s true to himself, and more importantly, true to his faith, a faith in Jesus Christ.

For many, that faith is worth risking a little discomfort, some slight public awkwardness, and yes, even a little ridicule.

For some, it’s a faith worth dying for.


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