Ash Wednesday

Lent is a journey, a spring trip. The journey begins with ashes. Ashes smeared on our foreheads. Ashes representing all that’s left of our Palm Sunday exuberance. Remember how excited we were, welcoming Jesus into the city? We stopped the traffic on Broadway. We greeted the ruler of our days with expectations of real change, expectations of new life, true community, and a different kind of world. We threw our coats on the road, convinced that we’d be wearing kingdom robes from now on. We waved palm fronds and leafy branches, turning the sides of the road into the lush banks of the river of life.

The palm fronds went up in flames, and all that’s left are ashes. We’re wearing our dusty old coats again – dust and ashes. You alone know what else went up in flames since that day: what hope didn’t survive the attacks of cynicism; what love didn’t last; what certainty turned into anxious doubt – dust and ashes.

We are not the people we thought we could be. We’re not as strong, as loving, as committed, not as patient as we thought. None of us, not one, nominated for Best Disciple at the Golden Zion awards… We’re mortal, we’re human; earth creatures with hopes of heaven.

It would be tempting to wear a dirty grey smudge on our foreheads as a sign of regret and a promise to try harder this time. It would be tempting to engage in impressive acts of pennance, giving up shopping, TV, and red meat for seven weeks. After all, isn’t Lent about giving up stuff?

Nora Gallagher remembers a friend of her’s saying, “Annie’s giving up drinking, Terri’s giving up chocolate, and I’m just giving up.” (Things Seen And Unseen: A Year Lived In Faith, p. 80) When I first read those words, I laughed, but not for very long. Suddenly I heard great sadness in them. I imagined one of my friends saying them, and how I would put my hand on his arm and say, “Don’t give up; you’re not alone.”

And then I read the words again and I smiled. Lent isn’t about giving up this or that – chocolate, or caffeine, or scotch – it really is about “just giving up” and giving in. Lent is about giving up resistance to God’s persistent grace. Lent is about giving in to a love and power greater than our own, strong enough to save us. Lent is about learning to trust the promise again.

Lent is a journey, a spring trip. The journey begins with ashes smeared on our foreheads, and the smudge shows the outline of a cross. At the cross, all our journeys end. At the cross, everything goes up in flames. The cross is the end of the world – and the beginning of the new creation. The journey ends with the joy of mortals who discover that the tomb is empty. The journey ends with new life flourishing on the banks of the river of life.