By LEON YOUNGBLOOD
The story still makes the rounds this time of year at a Protestant seminary in New Orleans. In the mid-1970s, a few students from rural towns and farms in the deep South went to Bourbon Street and other places “sight-seeing,” and saw a sight that unnerved them—the “Mark of the Beast!” The “Rapture,” the return of Christ to claim His Church had occurred, and they were left behind!
The poor wayfarers were frantic in their fear. How could they be “left behind?” They had done all the right things: They had repented and had recited the “sinners’ prayer” as presented to them; they accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior, had been baptized by immersion—yet the “Rapture” had just happened! They were left behind, left behind to suffer the horrors of the “Tribulation!”
You would have to have been active in the evangelical churches a long time ago to understand their fears and reactions to the catalyst of their panic. In the 1970s, a fever existed in many denominations for the “End Times”—the “Return of Christ,” the “Thousand Year Reign of Satan,” the “Rapture,” the “Tribulation,”—you would have to have been there to fully understand. These young people were churched in that frenzy of expectation, and fully understood. On their little venture, they saw many, many people in New Orleans walking around with an ugly gray smudge on their foreheads—the “Mark of the Beast!”
They took their panic back to the seminary campus. God’s business was running as usual, but still, they voiced their fears and concerns to their fellow students. The good news was, they felt proportionately foolish when it was explained to them: New Orleans has a large Catholic population; the forehead smudges were observances of Ash Wednesday, a day observed with fasting, prayer, repentance and humility; the “smudge” isn’t the “Mark of the Beast,” either; it is a Christian cross applied by a priest; Ash Wednesday is observed not only by Catholics, but also by Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans and other denominations as well; it is a testament of faith; the ceremony had its beginnings somewhere around the 8th century, but its basis is in the Biblical “sackcloth and ashes.” Other reassurances were offered along the lines of, “Well, you were being foolish, but, no, you were not left behind,” and, “Here is some recommended reading,” and, “No, of course you’re not being judged. You’re from [many places in the deep South]! You’ve never even seen a Catholic!” In short, the thing was resolved and everybody felt better.
I bring all this up because (1) it is Ash Wednesday week, and (2) two of my favorite Briar Circle residents, “Grandpa” and Liz Port, had an “ash” encounter. Business took them out of town. On the way home, they stopped at a chain restaurant and saw several people with conspicuous smudges on their foreheads. They did not panic, they were not upset, they were merely curious, and when they mentioned it on a chance encounter, I felt a little sense of gratification to be able to provide a modest explanation. Part of it came with the “New Orleans” story.
Every response was appropriate. They appreciated learning something they did not know. They were amused by the “New Orleans” story. While they did not observe “Ash Wednesday,” they had no disrespect for those who did, though they knew nobody who did. They recalled the “Second Coming of the Lord” movement, too, from decades earlier. It was here “Grandpa” hit home.
“I remember those days,” he observed. “It’s funny, now. I remember the ‘brush arbor’ meetings, the revivals. Some of those preachers said Henry Kissinger was the anti-Christ. They believed in the ‘Mark of the Beast,’ and the ‘Tribulation.’ Some of those old preachers couldn’t even read! But they were ahead of their time.
“But look: We’re in the computer age. You have a cell phone, they can track you. They’ve recorded every call you make. They can take pictures from space that give every little detail of what’s in your yard. Magnetic ink knows all the information on your credit, debit cards and on you checks. Unmanned ‘drones’ can fly over our neighborhoods. My friend, the technology is here. The ‘last days’ are here. But the passion, the warnings from all the preachers—where’re they? We’re sitting in the end of time, and they ain’t here.”