On Sunday, we sang our final "Hallelujahs!" until Easter, and on Monday we prepared for Shrove Tuesday where we ate our pancakes and jars of lard and prepared for the dreaded Ash Wednesday, when we have to stop doing something we enjoy, like eating chocolate, drinking coffee, or screaming at drivers who don't realize that their cars came equipped with free turn signals (DUDE! It's right there on the steering wheel!).
We Christians are a strange breed, aren't we? We engage in some supremely bizarre stuff to show our devotion to a God who is simultaneously evasive and available. We gather to meet at strange times (11:00 p.m on Christmas Eve?! 5:45 a.m. on Easter?!), and we do crazy stuff together when we meet. We sing strange songs about strange things and proclaim to possess a faith and conviction of things not seen, and yet choose to believe anyway.
Yup. We're nutso.
The services around Ash Wednesday are among the most bizarre. We take ashes, which are the burned remains of the palm branches that we waved on the previous year's Palm Sunday, and we mix them with anointing oil. We smear this gooey, smelly, charred mess on our foreheads and walk around the rest of the day like nothing is different.
There is a theory that the sayings of Jesus that actually got recorded in the Bible were those sayings that couldn't be attributed to anyone else. So, if it was weird ("Turn the other cheek!" "Love your enemies!"), then it most certainly had to have come straight from the mouth of Jesus. I disagree wildly with the methodology of the Jesus Seminar folks, but I do think that they're on to something by, at least, naming how bizarre these mandates are. We have a tradition that calls us to act in the precise opposite way we would incline. The season of Lent is no exception.
In my household this week, J came down with a healthy dose of conjunctivitis. His head swelled up on Tuesday morning, like he was savoring the last bits of mucus before oozing it out of every orifice, thus giving up congestion for Lent. (Really - this description is *less* gross than the reality.) I thought at first it was just a rockin' allergic reaction to the newly-formed pollen. My theory was proved wrong when, about midway through the day, his eyes became as rivers of pale yellow goo. His once-a-year nap left him with lids glued shut and purple undereye swelling that stood in sharp contrast to his fair skin and dark lashes. He looked awful. He looked sick. He looked mortal.
But, I watch my normally vital and healthy child defy this description most days.
"He is not dust!,"I want to yell back at the liturgy. "He is beautiful, golden, spirited, alive, breathy, solid, whole and light!" I retort.
His fragility and mortality are not common descriptors. He is the least dust-y person I know, in fact. Dust to dust? Not my boy.
We got Jackson the proper eye drops on Tuesday night, and by Wednesday morning, he was doing much better. I left early in the morning to hear from my preaching students, who did not disappoint. I left my class and went to visit my friend, Bob. He has been moved to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where he lies in his bed, covered in dozens of blankets and wearing a ski hat. I haven't seen Bob in about 2 weeks, and when we last met, he got the diagnosis that the tumor was back and there was nothing more the doctors could do. Then, he was still able to walk, talk, eat, drink.
Yesterday, I walked into Bob's room and was greeted by the sight of an emaciated man, whose mouth was agape as he slept. Bob was alone, and it gave me some time to take it in. The cancer has acted quickly. His energy has been drained, his facilities are gone, his words are muted, his spirit is weak.
I am able to visit such places only when armed with my liturgical kit of "things to do." I'd asked Jimmy for some ashes to bring, that I might impose them on Bob's forehead. As Bob slept, I mixed the ashes with oil on a small plate. I touched his arm, and prayed a prayer.
To this man who wears his mortality as his mantle, I muttered, "Bob, Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." I lifted his ski cap, and marked his damp forehead with the sign of the cross. It was sobering and awful. Though he lay sleeping, I was the one who was marked.
Later that evening, our congregation gathered to worship on this unusual day. Jimmy, Phillip and I stood at the front of the sanctuary and marked each congregant's forehead with the sign of the cross. Later on, someone noted that he could see a change in people as they received their ashes. He said it was as if they had crossed a threshold, and after walking through it, they were heavier, more aware of their being. Those waiting in line possessed a lightness that was extinguished as soon as they heard the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
As the service concluded, I looked out at the gathered many, who now sat with a smudgy cross staring back at me. It was as if each person had been touched by the same black spirit, that caused us all to wear Death on our foreheads. Mortality became our prominent feature, our first attribute, our most notable aspect. All else faded away - our names, our clothes, our stature, our mood - all were muted by the shout of Death that spoke louder than any of our attempts to feign life.
This sobering service and this unusual marking set us on a journey, which we know ends, not at the foot of the cross, but in the garden where we are met with life and resurrection. It's good that we have this hope and promise of eternal life, because yesterday, Death spoke louder than our mortal life, and it feels as though that spirit given us its final message: