One of my funniest Ash Wednesday memories comes from my high school years. I was on the Mater Dei swim team and we took our workouts seriously, but we took our faith seriously too. At sixteen, we were “adults” and expected to abide by the rules of fasting on that day. My swim coach, who was also my religion teacher at the time, told us that we were exempt from fasting, but I wasn’t buying it. “Don’t fast,” he said. “Yeah right,” I thought. By the time I got out of the pool for sprints at the end of the workout, I was light-headed, nauseous, seeing stars, but I wasn’t the only one. He had kids falling down all over the pool deck! Something like that is only going to happen at a Catholic school!
One of my least favorite Ash Wednesday memories happened last year, when we spent the day at the E.R. at Rady Children’s Hospital. Molly had to be readmitted a week after her back surgery for uncontrolled pain. By the time they finally doped her up, she was delirious on multiple doses of Valium and Atavin, which precipitated a crying, laughing, and truth-telling spell we will never forget (and she’ll never remember.) A female pastor – Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal – I can’t remember, came by the room and asked if we would like to receive ashes. Tim and I stepped out of the room and held hands as she completed the ritual: “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” It was a poignant moment, but painful. The evidence of the fragility of life was just beyond a pane of glass.
This morning, I sat down to begin my first official “Lenten” practice – an hour of morning reading, meditation and prayer. That’s it for the most part this year, nothing too dramatic, not like in previous years, which you can read about here, here and here. I thought about how my Advent journey in December was directed by a question: “What gift do you want to receive from God for Christmas this year and what do you have to release in order to make room to receive it?” I had been hoping another question would come to me from the cosmos, something significant, or holy to ponder, but there’s been nada. Each time I tried to pose one for myself, it rang false, like I was a poser.
So I just let it go. I’m much more trusting these days that the right thing will show up at the right time if I’m paying attention (that’s the actual trick – paying attention instead of being distracted by our iphones, Netflix, food, alcohol, shopping, do-gooding, expectations, etc.) This morning I sat down to write in my journal, where most of the entries are written as letters to God. Instead of something significant, these were the questions that came to me:
This Lent, can I be content? Can I be of service? Can I participate with your work in the world: to love, to heal, to befriend, to connect?
And as I wrote, I realized that the first two questions were for me, but that I had written the final question to Jesus, not to God. That might not stand out to you, but for me, it was really weird. I don’t pray to Jesus. I don’t write to Jesus. I wouldn’t even claim to know Jesus, even though he’s probably my favorite person who’s ever walked on the planet and I consider myself one of his followers. I love what Jesus said and did and taught and lived. I love the Eucharist and communion tables, especially when they are open to all. But Jesus himself? Mostly unapproachable. So, I sat with that oddity for a moment, and then I kept writing to him:
Rarely do I pray to you. Your humanity seems too real to deserve prayers “to,” and yet your divinity is too alienating for me to feel like we’re friends. I have been taught my whole life that you were like us in every way, but sin, which always confuses me, because then you aren’t like me at all! Most of what I am is my “sin,” though I don’t use that word any more. If you were “perfect” and “sinless,” then you have no experience at all with the ways I fall short every day, the ways I disappoint, don’t get things right, hurt feelings, speak hastily, covet something, lose my patience, fall into temptation and eat/do/watch something I probably shouldn’t. I think I’ll be trying to work out that paradox – who you are and how exactly we’re related – my whole life…
But today, I stop and consider for a moment, that this Lenten season is wholly devoted to you: your life, your teachings and of course, your death.
You were like me, (or so they say,) but I see it here in a way I usually can’t.
You had a life, and a path (which probably didn’t work out the way you thought) and a deep Love for God, and you kept trying to be obedient to that Love, even when it led you to Jerusalem and the mob and authority figures that killed you. You didn’t hit the escape button.
How much of that I can relate to!
What if I remembered that these are your 40 days, Jesus, the last 40 of your life? In the end, you knew you were a “dead man walking,” but you didn’t walk away. How tempting it must have been! So, here’s a question: Can we be friends this Lent? It sounds so silly, but would that be a good question?
Can I be content? Can I be of service? Can I participate with your work in the world to love, to heal, to befriend, to connect?
It is not God’s work I describe there, but your work in this world. I watch how you lived and loved and bucked the system and ate and drank and touched and taught and broke a lot of rules and through that lens, maybe I can approach you, not as a theological dilemma to be solved, but as a life to be examined, a humanity to be loved.
I’m not really sure why I’m sharing these words with you all. I guess it’s because the complete change of focus from God to Jesus was so surprising to me. It was like I knelt down before the altar to my comfortable, slightly abstract image of a lovely and loving God, and I found myself on my knees before a complicated human being, who lived in the flesh and blood and the “full catastrophe” of what this life is. I don’t know what it means yet, but I know enough to pay attention, to keep asking questions and let my Lenten prayers take me where they may.
What questions are you asking this Lent? What practice is your heart leading you towards? What has to fade away, so that something new can arise? How will you approach these 40 days with grace and intention?