The oil dripped down from my forehead along the side of my nose. The cross I had been marked with was now running down my face. I wiped it with my hand, a gesture that surely looked like blotting tears to an observer. Perhaps it should have been tears, as the holy oil of gladness had been mixed with the ashes of mourning just that day by the pastor of my new church.
But the journey toward the cross was just starting, and the emotion and exhilaration of living long in the wilderness hadn’t yet hit me. I was tired as I continued to recover from surgery just the week before; I was happy because I was standing next to my new husband. And I sang and prayed and received expectantly during the service; it is my first Lent at St. Matthew.
But I have not felt and understood and experienced the true mourning of the Ash yet. Not on just this second day of Lent. It’s far too easy to just wipe away that part of Easter – the long journey of reflection and repentance. Just as easy as it was for me to grab a tissue as I left the sanctuary and wipe away the drips of oil on the side of my nose. Just as easy as it was for me to grab a paper towel when I got home and finish the job right there.
“What happened to your cross?” I asked him. “Did you wipe yours off, too?”
“No,” he said. “It’s just gone. It must have dried up and flaked off.”
That’s how easy it is to move toward Easter without the Ash and the mourning, even without the cross. We want hope. We want joy. We want resurrection, without all the suffering and the pain.
We want Easter without Lent.
A Catholic Online article calls this an “inconvenient Lent” because Valentine’s Day falls the day after Ash Wednesday. Since many people give up sweets for Lent, they will have to forego the Valentine’s chocolates this year.
I wasn’t sure what to give up, as I sat in the service last night, but I knew it would probably be inconvenient for me, too, even if it wasn’t related to Valentine’s Day. Though I usually do participate in the Lenten Discipline of fasting, food is rarely on my list. In fact, as someone who has followed a strict vegan diet, as well as no sugar or gluten, for the past year, it’s difficult to give anything else up without compromising my nutrition.
I usually give up something like TV or reading, something that gives me time to participate in other Lenten disciplines like praying or meditating. But it’s never convenient. I’m not sure it’s supposed to be.
“Spend time asking God what he would like for you to give up,” the pastor told us last night. “And he will tell you.”
As the service came to an end, I still didn’t know. On the way home, I asked my husband what he would give up, if anything. He was undecided, too. Drifting off to sleep last night, I decided that maybe this would be the Lent that I give up giving up things.
When I woke in the middle of the night and immediately grabbed my iPhone to check the time, look at email, and wade through some Facebook updates if sleep didn’t immediately return, the Lord spoke to me just as the Pastor had said he would.
“Spend this time with me,” the Lord told me, just like that. “Put down the phone and talk to me.”
The next time I woke up, it was morning.
Toward the end of the service last night, there was a section in the program called “Peace.” Having never been part of a Methodist Ash Wednesday service, and having really only flirted with anything resembling high church in my life, I was curious to see what “Peace” might mean. It sounded so ethereal.
“This is the time in the service when we greet each other like on Sunday mornings,” the pastor said. “Only tonight, you will say, ‘The peace of the Lord be with you,’ because God has brought us peace with himself and each other.”
As the woman next to me grabbed my hand and spoke the Peace to me, the oil of gladness and mourning running down the side of her face, too, I knew the next 40 days were necessary, not just for what we give up, or how we grieve and repent.
But because the peace must be passed, one broken sinner to the next, and it only happens when we are marked with the Cross dripping from our lives, making us more like our Savior.
Photo by Mandy_Jansen, via Flickr, used with permission via the Creative Commons.