March 6th, Ash Wednesday
This post is coming to you a day late and a dollar short, as per my usual style–with both blog posts and Christmas gifts (yeah sis so I still have your gift sitting on my desk uhhhmmmmm its March now yep).
On the morning of this first day of Lent, I am at the office, trying my meager best to explain the season to a coworker, and suddenly I am reminded all in a rush of the Lenten season my sophomore year of college.
I sat in the balcony of Dimnent Chapel, a little to the side and a few rows back, that Ash Wednesday morning. Mostly out of the way, and alone. The whole campus was buzzing with a kind of frenetic excitement–what are you giving up for Lent? And you? And you? Do you participate in Lent? What are you giving up? I felt so oppressed by the rush and tumble of everyone else to proclaim their holiness by virtue of the size of their sacrifice. Chocolate, sugar, social media, television, coffee. I didn’t know what Lent was, but I did know what it was not: a competition. So much of that season at school felt like a competition.
I remember feeling confused by the lesson the chaplain gave that morning, not understanding Lent, or the meaning of the ashes, or how giving up facebook for forty days became the equivalent of fasting. I remember feeling a little lost, and a little apprehensive, and a lot lonely. I remember wishing I were more faithful, and understood Lent, Holy Week, and Easter better. I remember the simultaneous guilt and dread of leaving the Chapel without receiving the sign of the cross in ash on my forehead like everyone else, because I didn’t understand its meaning. As I slipped out, I heard the chaplains speaking the admonition of Lent to each student they crossed: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Later that day, frustrated, tired, and floundering, I wrote, “Do I need ashes on my forehead to remember that I am dust? Do I need to give something up to remember how much I need God? I have lived every day this year in full knowledge of how much I need God, and how greatly I fail in seeking Him. I have lived every day in the knowledge that I am dust. I don’t need tangible signs to remember those things. Sometimes they’re all I think about. I need something, instead, to remember that I am dust, but that doesn’t make me worthless. I need something to remember that I need God and I fail at seeking Him, but He is seeking after me as well. I just need to know that I’m held.”
I spent so many of my days, that year, feeling as though I had fallen through the cracks of God’s grace and faithfulness. I imagined myself so small that I slipped between the fingers of His cupped hands, into a no-man’s-land where I was, while still protected by the fact of my salvation, certainly not actively known or cared about. I couldn’t believe that God did not love me, lumped in with everyone else, but I did believe that He did not see me, alone and myself. Ash Wednesday seemed to me, that year, like the heaviest reiteration of the loneliness of my soul. I did not want to have that loneliness marked on my forehead.
How beautiful, the ways God changes our hearts. How merciful, the tenderness of His faithfulness to us. How miraculous, the strength of His unceasing pull at our lives.
It is five years after that lonely, heartbroken start to Lent. I am still just beginning to understand this season of the Church calendar, but I am learning to crave the ashes, crave the admonition that comes with them. Tonight, I stand in the dim, close warmth of a basement sanctuary, surrounded by Christians from many denominations–Anglican priest shaking hands with reformed, non-denominational, congregational pastors, young intervarsity students from worlds away sitting next to aging believers who have never left the state. We are invited to enter into the ceremony of the Eucharist, and we rise as one body to do so. The miracle that unites us is so often the thing that drives us apart, but tonight, there is unity. This bare and broken moment at the beginning of forty days of sorrow and preparation drops our walls, and I feel at home in a way I have not since I graduated from my little liberal-arts haven of fellowship, community, membership.
We are entering a season of darkness, a season of heart-wrenching waiting, of silence, of sacrifice. But we are also entering a season of war–war against the darkness, against the silence. This is what Lent is–a beautiful, painful, holy period of cleansing. The wages of sin is death, and we will pay that wage–but how often do we forget to continue on to the second half of the verse? We have been taught how to fight. Our weapons are in prayer, in fasting, in giving of ourselves. The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. I remember that I am dust, and to dust I shall return. But I remember too that through Christ, death has already received its universal, final defeat.
Edit: I found one (one!) of my photos of the Chapel. I am still in denial that the others are lost…but I guess this means I need to go back…?