I was 13 years old, the first time I remember going to an Ash Wednesday service, and receiving the Imposition of Ashes. Standing in the bathroom of the Pizza Hut, trying to decide whether or not I was going to wipe them off, or leave them on, I remember understanding in a new way that one day, I was going to die. And this smudge, gritty and harsh in the light of the small bathroom, reminded me and everyone else who saw it that I was dying. That was a hard thing to know, especially at that so-self-conscious phase in my teenage life.
I was 30 years old the first time I put ashes on someone’s head that I knew probably wouldn’t make it to Easter. Ash Wednesday was especially tender when I was working with pastoral care, and taking ashes to sweet little old people who were stuck at home or stuck in nursing homes or hospitals. Leaving at the end of a visit with one of them was always a little bit hard. The reality that there are a finite and unknowable number of visits left with them seemed especially stark, sealed on their brows with the Sign of the Cross, and the whorls from the side of my thumb. The unspoken knowledge between us that their time on this side of life was drawing to a close was so loud and dark against their pale and papery foreheads. And even though I tried, I almost always cried while we were praying. But I am grateful for the grace and wisdom I witnessed in my sweet little old people. Their love and willingness to be faithful, to continue to hope and be curious about life in the face of illness and ache, to share stories of Jesus in their lives and loves–those things sweetened the deep bitter sips of another truth we told each other on Ash Wednesday.
The first time I put ashes on the head of a little kid, I almost couldn’t actually do it. I was so glad that it was acceptable to put the ashes on their hands, so they could see it, and not be frightened by it…but I was also glad because it didn’t frighten me so much to see this mark of ultimate fragility on little round faces that were so vital and full of life and adventure and hope and joy. And while saying “Remember that God loves you very much” isn’t, by a long shot, nearly as somber as “Remember you are ashes, and to ashes you will return”, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if someone rubs something on your hand and says something, paying attention to what’s being said is something even the squirmiest of little kids will do. But I knew what I meant, I knew what the other words were, and it was hard to swallow the lump in my throat, to be confronted in a non-intellectual way with the capriciousness of death, of how it neither respects time or talent or treasure. It was difficult not to wish it away with thoughts of Easter, rushing to drag back out the happy, and not sit with the hard.
But that is what Lent invites us, commands us, and empowers us to do–to sit with the hard, whether it’s a hardness in the world, or a hardness in ourselves, and to contemplate it. There’s no getting over what we don’t confront, what we don’t contemplate, what we don’t confess. Lent is the ladder we offer each other to get over the hard things that separate us from the deep peace and mercy, from the call and response Jesus offers us with His life. We remind ourselves, even as we admit and shoulder the hard reality of our humanity and the consequences of our broken beings, that God hates nothing that God has made.
We stand at the foot of a great and high mountain, just behind Jesus, and endeavor in this Season of Lent to draw closer to His footsteps. I pray that your walking with Him is good– that wherever the journey of this Lent takes you may become your holy place–that even the hard things will become softened, and that you will find peace and mercy aplenty.
With prayers for peace and lots of love,