Grasping Ash Wednesday

I asked my twelve-year-old son at dinner last night to explain to me his grasp of the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent.  It took him a while to stop asking if he was “right,” and just relax into explaining his understanding of it.

On Ash Wednesday we take the ashes from the burned palms from last year and wear them on our forehead.  We spend forty days fasting from something that is bad for us because Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness.

I quickly texted some friends and asked them to ask their children.  I was guessing that if I wanted to understand the tradition, I needed to ask the next generation of participants, those who embrace it with hearts wide open.

The ashes are from the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday, and we put them on our head on the first day of lent to remind us that we came from dust.

To me, Lent is a time of preparedness as we prepare to remember the death of Jesus.

We also think about all Jesus has done for us, so we fast and give up things we love in the name of Jesus Christ.

Lent is the time where you get to focus on your spirituality and God, by listening and learning about Jesus’ suffering. If I give up Internet time or junk food I want to do so not just to say “I gave this up” but because I’m inspired to prepare for Easter and better appreciate His suffering not mine.

When I was growing up I heard nothing about Lent or Ash Wednesday and our church didn’t follow the centuries old liturgical calendar. I didn’t know any Catholics except my great-grandmother and she was housebound, so I didn’t witness her religious rituals. Now I understand that many Christian traditions follow the Church calendar.  In fact, my own church will be holding an Ash Wednesday service this evening, and one of my favorite Pastors posted a beautiful piece about the day and its meaning.

But my first encounter with Ash Wednesday came only eight years ago.  I was scheduled to speak at an elementary school on the topic of “Passing on Faith to your Children.”  A large group of mothers showed up, and just across the hall from our meeting room was a chapel where many of their sons would be celebrating a service for Ash Wednesday a little while after our own meeting had begun.  After a few minutes of warm up, I dove into my notes about the ultimate importance of modeling and connecting with our children with whatever faith we held.  As I spoke of the value our children receive from watching us, most of those moms flew out of their chairs and raced across the hall to join their boys in receiving ashes.  It was affirming to know that my words had inspired them, but I learned about double checking dates and conflicts before organizing an event like that!

Today, I have loads of friends who participate in Lent and for a few years I watched from afar.  We moved our lunch dates around so we they wouldn’t be tempted by a chicken burrito on Fridays and I supported their chocolate fasts.

Two years ago I began writing spiritual reflections on Scriptural passages as they were calendared in the Catholic Church liturgical calendar.  I learned that every day of the year all Catholic priests speak from the same set of scriptures. Each week I would read the passage designated for a particular Sunday and attempt to write a thoughtful response.  By living inside this organized rhythm of Scripture, I began to see how the cycle of the yearly calendar led me through many important stories and passages to see the Bible for what it can be: a narrative of God’s love for us.

In my role, I wrote only about the specific Gospel readings (ya know, the Scriptures that come from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and mostly tell stories about the life of Jesus), but there are actually four or five scriptures combined for each day that always include an Old Testament passage, a Psalm as well as something from the Epistles.  If a person attends Mass every day for three years straight she will likely hear a sermon from every piece of the Bible.  And if a person wanted to organize herself for daily reading, she could click here.

If you attend Catholic mass (or any other denomination that follows the liturgical reading schedule) on Sundays during Lent you will hear two familiar stories: Jesus fasting in the desert and winning the fight with temptation, and Jesus taking Peter, James and John up to the mountain top.  I wrote about those stories during Lent last year, and appreciate that the calendar has circled us back to them. This year you’ll also hear about Jesus cleansing the Temple, the famous John 3:16 that you’ve seen on posters at football games, the Kingdom principle of giving up your own life for Jesus and gaining it back, and finally on Palm Sunday you’ll hear about the woman with the alabaster box.  Temptation, Ecstasy, Righteous Anger, Love, Self-denial, and finally, Humility.  Seriously, the 2012 Lenten season is packed with good stuff!

Last year about this time, I was deep in pain in my mama’s heart. I was alienating people around me with my constant worry and stress and I was beginning to feel crazy.  I couldn’t sleep well and I certainly wasn’t thinking clearly.  Along came Ash Wednesday and I decided to participate.  I gave up worry and tried to replace it with trust.  It was the single biggest game changer of my 2011, although one friend encouraged me to pick something easier for my first try, like chewing gum.  Every time my stomach began to roll and the obsessive thoughts entered, I had a reason to ignore them.  I would close my eyes and take a deep breath and imagine trust flowing in through my nostrils and down into my lungs and flowing to every part of my body, pushing out the stress.  There simply was no room left for it.

So perhaps my son was right that Lent is about giving up something bad for us.  Or maybe the other kid is right that we must give up something we love.

I am reminded of the story of the blind men touching an elephant and trying to describe what it looks like.  Each was feeling a different part – the smooth tusk, the wrinkled skin, the rough and sharp toenail.  Each was right, but none was grasping the whole picture.

Maybe the whole picture is too big to see.  Perhaps some years I need to learn that in the end I am nothing but dust and other years I need to know that my celebrations from last year will end in ashes this year.  Sometimes I need to fast in a way that pains me and other times I need to fast in a way that saves me.  Some years it’s a stretch for me to get over my petty self and connect with His suffering.

But each year, I probably could use the forty-day reminder that redemption is on the horizon. Resurrection is bigger than differences in tradition, worries in my heart, grasps of understanding, chocolate and chewing gum.  Alleluia, He is Risen will ring in my ears soon.