05 March 2014

the hope of ash wednesday + lent

Lent has begun, and I am tired. When I woke up this morning and peeked out the window, I saw that it was snowing—again—and I wanted to crawl back in bed.

From the bed you came, and to the bed you shall return, I thought. How liturgically appropriate today, on Ash Wednesday.

I couldn't return to bed: it's the middle of the week, and tired or not, snowing or not, I needed to go to work.

Especially this year as I enter Lent, this season is feeling like a blanket. It usually does. In the cold, dark winter, Lent can feel like a time to burrow in. To dig deep. To look at all that is hard in the world around us and to still see hope.

And you have to choose to see hope, don't you? We're reminded of that every winter, when we've forgotten what grass looks like; it has been that long since we've seen what's hiding under the snow. The grass will green again, of course it will, but seeing past the cold ground takes a different set of set—hopeful ones.

Lent takes the same set of eyes. On Ash Wednesday, we pray: "Father, in Your mercy, look upon us in our weakness; and for the glory of Your name turn away from us all those evils, which we have deserved. Grant that in all our trouble our whole trust and confidence may be in You."

And we pray: "Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness."

We think about the ways we have pulled back from God, and the ways that we are masking our sins from him—and even from ourselves. We acknowledge, one more time, our smallness, and we can start to feel the hopelessness of that smallness.

What you can choose to hear during Ash Wednesday is, essentially: You have sinned, you will sin again, and then you will die.

Where the hope in that? Where's the hope in smearing your forehead with ash—a dead, killed thing?

And Lent, with its focus on self-sacrifice, denial, mortification of the flesh, and fasting—how does that hold hope?

Oh, it's there.

It's there when you kneel to say: I need more of you, Lord. I'm so bone-tired from relying on my own strength, from thinking that if I just make one more list or get up 30 minutes earlier or don't ever ever ever think about all that is hard and lost in the world—if I can just stay in control, then I'll be fine.

Hope is there when you pray: Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. I don't even know what to say beyond those words, and so I will mumble them along with the rest of these people kneeling around me.

Hope is there when you've come to the end of yourself, and that is exactly is where Ash Wednesday and Lent can bring you. It is cold and it is dark, but just as in winter, you know that spring will come, and oh, how glorious it will feel.

Ash Wednesday
Christina Rossetti

My God, my God, have mercy on my sin,
For it is great; and if I should begin
To tell it all, the day would be too small
To tell it in.

My God, Thou wilt have mercy on my sin
For Thy Love's sake: yea, if I should begin
To tell Thee all, the day would be too small
To tell it in.

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