It is Lent.
Lent and I, as with many things and I, have a very love/hate relationship. I love it because it’s intense, it’s deep, it forces me to confront my own faith and its place in my day-to-day life, its insistence that religion not overwhelm the reality that is God. I love it because Lent was my original journey to faith.
I hate it for pretty much the same reasons.
So this past week was Ash Wednesday, on which we get marked up so the folks at Wal-Mart politely ask why we haven’t washed lately. And it’s not just a Catholic thing, despite what my Catholic grandmother thinks. I don’t even know where to start with the shock and intensity of how that service turned out for me, so you know what, Reader? Instead, let us discuss What Comes Next.
There are two mini-seasons people tend to recognize within the full ecclesiastical year, Lent and Advent. Advent is great, because we get to put up the tree and wait for Christmas and watch the first snowfall and add in Christmas carols to our routines. Lent…well, Lent, we get to fast, and pray, and wait in this darkness that finally gets to the awful awfulness of Holy Week. Then, and only then, do we get the raucous awesomeness of Easter—but man, the waiting period is rough.
I help with altar decor at my church, which basically means the folks who plan worship recognize that I love messing with fabrics and statues and they let me play in order to visualize the sermons (with helpful suggestions and nudges along the way). Since we’re doing a sermon series for Lent, we decided to put six different shades of purple on the altar, one for each Sunday, that we’ll peel off as we go. It took me a while to figure out the shades that went together (because, under sanctuary lights, there are some purples that ARE SO NOT PURPLE ANYMORE) and then to plan how to get them all on the altar without looking like a gypsy train had settled in for the season. It was awesome, and frustrating, and totally consuming, which is pretty much why I love doing that kind of thing. It, like running, gives me the space not to think about whatever else is going on.
Because there is so much else, you know? My students and teaching partner continue to drive me nuts with their silence and apathy, my own classes are continually falling to the bottom of the pile (which is doing myself no favors), I’m navigating a book group which has both Magister and Interpreter, which is SO CRAZY INTIMIDATING. (Seriously. They’re fantastic gentlemen, they really are, but it’s sort of like having a confab with Tolkien and Lewis. They’re super nice, but you are well aware that the sheer force of their knowledge and theology could do battle with meteors and win. I mean, it’s awesome, too, and this last week was great, but ain’t no way I’m going to come unprepared to that.)
And there’s other stuff, as there always is. There’s the intensity of my friend’s memorial service this past week, the knowledge that next week I start some new stuff I’m not at all thrilled about, and, of course, the What Comes Next.
There is nothing quite like having graduation loom large on the horizon to make you totally enamored of spending an hour or two sorting fabrics in your church sanctuary.
It’s scary stuff! I’m supposed to have some sort of plan, some idea of this Calling that everyone and my mother seems to have adopted to the point of basically referencing me as though I’m already ordained; it’s supposed to be a hop skip and a jump from a career path of medieval literature into that cushy senior pastor job I was absolutely made for. What?! How did that happen? It’s like saying we can go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter, like having Ash Wednesday kick off a one-week season of thinking.
It doesn’t work that way. Trust me, a lot of the time I wish it would. But it doesn’t work that way. Reader, the thing about Ash Wednesday, the thing about this Lent thing being about preparation—somewhere in the year we have to look full in the face of the fact that we fuck up. A lot. In the imposition of the ashes, we are told we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Through the season we are reminded that before Easter we get Palm Sunday, when Jesus wept for Jerusalem. We don’t get to skip to the bits when we have everything figured out and nothing went wrong and the trip was uneventful. We have to stay in these forty days of wilderness that suck pretty badly because that is how this works, because that is real in a way that has nothing to do with pretty appearances and platitudes and graduation gowns that make you feel like you can conquer the world.
We don’t stay there, of course, but for right now we acknowledge that place of brokenness, of mortality, of not having a clue What Comes Next because most days we barely understand What’s Happening Now. Lent is not “fun” in any normal sense, but it is honest. And considering that some people seem to expect me to acquiesce to a whole life plan in the next three months, I could use a little honesty.
And he cried against the altar in the word of the LORD, and said , “O altar, altar, thus saith the LORD; ‘Behold, a child shall be born unto the house of David, Josiah by name; and upon thee shall he offer the priests of the high places that burn incense upon thee, and men’s bones shall be burnt upon thee.'” And he gave a sign the same day, saying , “This is the sign which the LORD hath spoken ; ‘Behold, the altar shall be rent , and the ashes that are upon it shall be poured out.'” (1 Kings 13:2-3, KJV)