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.