Contrary to what you might have been told, Lent does not mean “40 days of beating yourself up.” It does not even mean “40 days of God beating you up and reminding you of what kind of a person you really are.”
I vividly remember my day in Wittenburg, Germany. My husband and I had taken the train from Berlin in order to see the sights connected with the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. Sure, most people who travel to Wittenburg are there to learn about Martin Luther, to stand at the church door where he nailed his 95 Theses, which rather than leading to profitable theological conversation, eventually resulted in his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church and subsequently going into hiding.
But I had made this pilgrimage to learn more about Katharina von Bora.
I did some things inadequately and halfheartedly. I mechanically responded to email, returned phone calls, chipped away at the mountain of paper on my desk. I was often bored and listless, and struggled to corral my wandering mind. I yawned a lot, and looked out the window.
I am in a phase of radical decluttering. The phrase “spring cleaning” comes to mind, but it’s a bit too Disneyish and doe-eyed to describe the full-scale assault currently underway against old toys, outgrown clothes, and random piles of crap inside my house. Until this is finished, I can’t relax.
When I was 11 years old, my parents told me that they were going to separate. At the time, we lived in Reno and my dad decided to take a job in Dallas as my parents sorted things out. Although my older sister and I were both devastated, we reacted in very different ways.
I became aware of my trust in God when I was 13, during an overnight with the daughter of our church’s minister. We weren’t in the same school, but that year her dad taught our confirmation class and we became friends.
We had turned the lights out—her mother had asked us to—but, as usual, we continued talking. Eventually, the conversation took a turn when one of us asked, “What if God didn’t exist?”
Yesterday I offered “ashes to go” at the White Plains train station. It’s apparentlycontroversial, but I’m letting others do the heavy theological lifting. I wanted to experience it before I reflected.
It was cold. Below freezing. We still haven’t gotten out of the polar vortex, which I think has decided that it’s very comfortable in its new digs and it will never leave. Besides, spring has gone fishing. Ice fishing.
With the imposition of ashes imminent—this stark ritual signalling the onset of a season starker still in its confrontations with mortality and its fleshly (and fleshy) deprivations—I am reading about food. Glorious food.
This is why we came—not to be reminded of our finitude. God knows we feel it in our bones, and some of us in our backs and legs and arthritic hands. We come kneeling and hoping that something or someone will whisper forgiveness so that we might start again. Believing or at least hoping that these 40 days that lead to the cross might just touch something deep in our hearts.
The priest comes and dabs his finger into the ashes.