In my spiritual tradition, we have a peculiar Christian ritual some might consider strange. As a way to symbolize the forty days preceding Easter and the season of Lent, we gather on Ash Wednesday and the pastor smears our foreheads with ashes in the sign of a cross. The previous year’s dried up Palm Sunday branches are burned for this sacred moment. Or, to give the ashes that Grade-A deepest gray color, they are pre-ordered from the church supply catalog.
Once we receive the ashes, we allow them to linger through the day, let it sink in that we are all made of dust, and to dust we shall return. While wearing the ashes in public, I’ve had people politely indicate I have dirt on my forehead. I know someone who stood in the grocery line check-out when, in ignorance, the woman behind her said, “You have something on your forehead!” After licking her thumb like some life-long auntie, the stranger came at my friend, who quickly dodged the woman’s germ-infested thumb. Being a witness to our mortality can be a dangerous business.
I do *heart* Ash Wednesday, and I am the one usually blessing the ashes and smearing them on foreheads. This year, at my new church, there are enough pastors to share that responsibility, so I had the rare opportunity to be with my darling posse of boys as a regular mom. Instead of looking out over a somber crowd of penitent people as I normally would have, I anticipated sitting with my family to receive the important reminder that life does not last forever, and that we do well to live as those who are dying. Now let me confess my sin. Attending the Ash Wednesday worship service was too full of life, and that made me want to scream. Prepared for some somber reflection, the experience took a bad turn. Yep, Fat (Tuesday) chance. Our pew was more mardi gras meets mini-zombies. Have mercy on me, my rowdy boys came at me so steadily, wearing me down, so that I had no time to re-arm. I was defenseless against all sorts of crimes against Lent.
The first offense—allow me to put it out there—occurred when one of our triplet kids ran toward the front of the sanctuary to grab us a seat. You don’t really run in and seize Lent like that. Too much energy. I concede it was thoughtful, however, that he wanted us to see better, which also meant people behind us who were trying to search their souls could see us, all of us. That meant no sun block from the exposure of our bright, busy children. Two of my 8-year-old triplets sat in the pew to my left. One was reading a graphic novel.
Apparently, at times, this can’t-put-it-down book series is so real to my boys that after finishing one of the stories, I’ve had a child run silently into the room and fling himself into my lap.
“Tough ending?” I asked.
“Kind of,” he said, arms around my neck, face hidden against my shoulder. He tried to explain, but the most important take-away unearthed was that the main character of the book decided to leave a land, the valley, he had grown to love.
Loss. It can be devastating, occurring in tidal waves so that you can’t take another breath, or it can be present for so long that it rolls around like a marble in your heart, occasionally bumping intrusively against the most tender places.
The night of ashes I simply wanted to bask quietly in the fleeting nature of life, so easily gone, and its preciousness, but I was surrounded by uncooperative, unruly children. One was buried in his book, refusing to stand and sing, at one point lying down on the pew. (Funny how my frowns and "no-no" head shake only seem to empower such behavior.) At least one boy tried to follow along in the hymnal as I bent down, singing with him in a crouch, my legs cramping by verse three. Apparently, I was experiencing “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” all in one exasperating service. Add to the tension, a growing observation that my husband was doing a lousy job, I thought, settling the other one down. This one, with poor attitude and puffed lower lip, was audibly and frequently editorializing, “This is boring.” Suddenly, everyone’s a worship critic. At least he and his older brother were no longer elbowing one another.
I had imagined a different beginning to my Lent because I was attending with my family in tow. What was I thinking? Better, what was I dreaming? Had I really believed I’d get to bask in thoughts of mortality with spiritual sincerity, instead of getting pulled into everyday familial mess, just like the petty human annoyances at home? I could feel myself sinking into the morass of dashed ambitions.
We left the church—not soon enough—and climbed into the old red van. My eyes fell to the patches of deep scratches across its doors, from the time one boy wrote his name with a rock, and another from the time the electric door slid across the carport column, making an abrasive, sickening sound as metal hit brick. It’s the sound of “Oops!” It’s the sound of, “Oh, crap.” It’s the sound of “Well, bloody hell.” It’s the sound of regret. Strapping into our seat belts, I looked around at all our chaos and realized my “wannabe” family is a ridiculous fiction. Our imperfect, on-display, wild antics are the reason we—perhaps all of us—don’t go quietly into our good Lent. Repentance is a winding, up-the-mountain, down-the-valley experience, never a straight-as-an-arrow line. It’s wildly erratic and pervasively hopeful. You see, we are not made for Lent. Lent is made for us, the crazies. It’s our opportunity to have a greatly needed spiritual dust-up.