Ash Wednesday (belated)

Last year, I’d hoped to do a post on Lent, but by the time I got my act together we were well past Easter and into spring.

This year, I’d hoped to do a post on Ash Wednesday, but already we’re well into Lent.

Ash Wednesday has come and gone and Easter is right around the bend, but still, I’m within the season aren’t I? Belated or not, here is your Ash Wednesday post:

Once, on an Ash Wednesday a few years ago, my friend Anne and I walked past a Catholic church on our way downtown for breakfast. I pass this particular church every day, often just as the bells toll, and every day I admire the architecture, bells and sweet garden tucked along one side of the building. Occasionally, the fronts steps are crowded by wedding parties, or the doors are left open mid-mass and the voices of the worshipers make their way outside to the sidewalk, to me. On six mornings of the week the doors are closed, the courtyard quiet, the only activity around the church that of either chirping birds or the sway of the black branches of the leafless cherry trees out front.

This day, however, was Ash Wednesday, and as we walked by the open doors parishioners made their way outside after what must have been a morning mass. Every forehead bore a black smudge, which sent Anne and me off talking about Lent and Easter, contrasting our more “contemporary” Christian attitude toward the season (which is so prone to view Easter Sunday as a “high-attendance, seeker-friendly” day, right up there with Christmas Eve) with what we took to be the very high church, traditional celebrations of days like Ash Wednesday.

I did not think that, within a few years, I would not only celebrate Ash Wednesday, but would look forward to it as one of the richest of holidays, marking as it does the season of Lent and Holy Week and (at last!) Easter morning.

Coming into the dim, candlelit quiet of our church on the evening of Ash Wednesday feels to me both unbearably heavy and sweet, as it is the beginning of a psalm that ends with the resounding “Alleluia!” of Easter. More and more I value those weeks of fasting in between as a time of preparation similar to that of Advent, but weightier, deeper, because striking the tension between the awareness of my own need for redemption and the glory of what God has done through the death of his son is a great and constant challenge. The difficulty is clarified through the practice of fasting, when it is so tempting to turn inward to focus on my sin and my sacrifice, rather than being reminded, with each test of faith, of what it is Christ has done for us.

On Ash Wednesday, I confess my sins and take the ashes of last year’s palm fronds upon my foreheads, I who cry “Hosanna!” with one breath and “Crucify him!” the next. I bear them as a black cross, a reminder of my mortality as well as my penitence. I then enter a season of fasting, giving up something joyful in order to feel the weight more fully of my sin and of my Savior’s death, before finding myself at the cross on Good Friday and the tomb – that glorious, empty tomb – on Easter morning.

The cry of “He is risen!” can be met only with “He is risen, indeed!”

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