Holy Days

Ash Wednesday

Not ashes, but rain, and soon sleet and then snow await me today.

This makes it the second year in a row that I have not led an Ash Wednesday service. It feels like a huge gap, which is strange considering that I rarely even attended a service before I became a pastor. I suppose it became my touchstone for entering Lent in a deeper way than I had realized.

The liturgy I prepared for this evening focused on entering a time of journeying with a very human Jesus. As Congregational UCC people, or for me as a former Southern Baptist, the rituals of Lent feel a little foreign. But the idea of making a conscious effort in a certain direction is very, very familiar. Noting its beginning, marking ourselves with the ashes of last year’s palms, can remind us that the cycle of journeying goes on throughout our lives.

Or in T.S. Eliot’s words, which like Lent come back to me again and again:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

My travels on this rainy Ash Wednesday morning took me to the gym for my third and final orientation session. At three appointed hours over the past five days, I have arrived to be led through the use of the weights and received consultations about cardio machines and been instructed in the Zen of the stretching routine we are to do at the beginning and end of each workout. I am an especially good girl under these kind of one-on-one circumstances, the best and most agreeable pupil any trainer could hope to meet. I arrive on time, I do as I am told, and I strive to succeed at extending my arms properly or flexing my toes correctly. (No, really. There is this thing called a Toe Press. Who knew?)

After today, there are no appointments to bring me to the gym. I may go whenever I like, which means I have to make an appointment with myself, rather than with Niffy or John or Patty.

It will be harder.

And that’s Lent. We may go to church on Ash Wednesday and feel reverent or penitential or (I admit it) slightly pleased with ourselves as we receive the mark of the ashes, the sign of our essential dustiness, the reminder of the courage and, yes, passion of Jesus for being one of us and taking every step of his journey into and through the human condition. We may feel the emotion on this day, a day when we have made an appointment to face ourselves.

But tomorrow there will be no special service, no appointment to explore the idea one more time.

The shape of our Lenten discipline, at least for Protestants of my general variety, is entirely up to the individual. You may have a Lenten lunch or study to attend, but going is a choice.

Once you choose, though, the good news is you’re not alone. If I cannot remember how high I’m supposed to lift the overhead whatchamacallit, there will always be a staff member around to answer my question. I just have to ask.

And if we want to walk the Lenten road, we do not have to walk it alone. We can walk it together: in our worship, in our reading, in our prayers. We can walk it with Jesus, hearing the old stories, of desert and temptation, of a woman at a well, of weeping over a friend and making a blind man see.

On this Sleet and Freezing Rain Possibly Followed by Snow Wednesday, I will not mark the foreheads of the gathered body, but I will mark the day and commit to the road ahead. I will listen for my own old stories and live my new ones. I will press my toes and raise my arms and bow my head and listen for the One who walks beside me.

13 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday”

  1. The gym as a Lenten discipline sounds appropriately weighty to me…
    I’m sitting here in my office all alone. Three peole came to our 7 am Ash Wed service – me, my husband, and one parishioner (who also shoveled the walks). No one came to the 9am and I am about to cancel the 7pm after a parish-wide email survey tells me no intends to come out tonight…it is a BAD storm, perhaps the worst of all our bad storms this winter…
    So. I sit here in solidarity with you, disappointed…sigh…

  2. Thanks for this. I am still missing the Ash Wednesday service I’m used to, in the evening, with a litany composed of intercessory prayers submitted by the congregation. What with the slush, the dog, etc. I am not going to a noon service. I did read morning prayers from Phyllis Tickle’s book and the selections from Bread and Wine. And I made a Lenten playlist for my computer — right this minute it’s Mahalia Jackson singing “There is a Balm in Gilead.”

  3. Hmm, gym for Lent. That’s worth considering as I am in a very similar position to you. About to run out of appointments and be on my own. Do you have any advice for the actual imposition of ashes? Leave me a comment if you do.

  4. Sadly, it hasn’t yet snowed here, the predicted start time has been pushed off to later in the evening. So there was no good reason to cancel. I’m really disappointed.

  5. Thanks for the reminder of what the season is for. And, as one who thought she wanted to be snowed out of church tonight and most emphatically is not, it’s helpful to remember that is privilege to go, and to lead.
    -J.

  6. I forgot that I was going to post the Eliot poem in my entry — thank you for the chance to read part of it. It felt like such a privilege to me today to be able to participate freely in an Ash Wednesday service.

  7. I could have gone and didn’t because of hurt feelings. Maybe Lent is a good time to examine letting go of being wounded. Thanks for such a lovely post when I needed it most. Love and hugs to you.

  8. The weather was balmy here in So Fla yesterday–high of 82. I got to do the liturgy in Spanish and English (one at noon, the other in the evening). What you wrote helps me understand why both mattered so much. thank you.

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