Thursday, March 6, 2014

Surprised by Lent

Easter is late this year. I am ready. I am tired of winter, and looking forward to spring. Yet Lent surprised me. I knew it was coming. It was on my calendar, and I made the requisite plans to observe it in my church. But emotionally it did not become real to me until Ash Wednesday evening.

I participated in a small Ash Wednesday service in the neighboring town. It was a union service shared by three congregations, but the small sanctuary was only a quarter full. There was no pianist, and so we sang a cappella. The unaccompanied voices added another level of sparseness.

Then came time for the ashes. Since none of the three clergy present were of “high church” pedigree, we opted for a revision of the forehead smudge that our Catholic and Episcopalian friends had received that day. We accepted ashes in the palms of our hands.

I am not sure it was well-planned out. It made for a messy handling of the hymnals during the final song, and it made the parting handshake a bit awkward. I held my steering wheel by my fingertips on the way home.

But it was a powerful moment. I held my future in my hands. I am dust and to dust I will return. In a decade or two - possibly less (who really knows?) - these ashes will be all that is left of me. We received news this week of our neighbor in Pennsylvania who died suddenly and unexpectedly. She went to school that morning and died. She was 54.

I recall a funeral I conducted for a young woman years ago. As we buried her ashes in a small hillside graveyard, the distraught mother became vocally angry. She cried out, “This is all that is left of her! Just these *$#% ashes!”

It surprised everyone present. We are not used to honesty at funerals - especially from such a dignified and proper lady. But sometimes it is what we need. Ash Wednesday is honest. Perhaps that is why so few attend.

We mortals are nothing more than ashes in the end. Yet in Christ we are promised an impossible sequel. We are promised resurrection. At the end of forty days, Lent blossoms into resurrection. Death is swallowed up by life. Sorrow is eclipsed by joy. I was surprised by Lent. I am surprised even more by Easter. 

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