Have you ever wondered where the ashes form Ash Wednesday come from? In truth, it actually depends on the tradition of your local church (and how organized your priest or pastor is), but traditionally it is prescribed that the ashes used on Ash Wednesday are the burned up palm leaves from Palm Sunday the previous year. Palm Sunday is the most foliaged Sunday in the liturgical year unless you are one of those churches that goes absolutely nutso with the army of Christmas trees and sea of poinsettias. Even so, Palm Sunday remains the Sunday where Christians go waving flora around the sanctuary. The sight always strikes me as comical, the poetry is intentional: The very instruments we go waving around triumphantly one year become the occasion for our repentance the next. How quickly our hearts turn from high praise to great indifference?
In fact the turning is much quicker than that. The time between the people of Jerusalem were waving palms at the triumphant entry of Jesus to Jerusalem to the time they were calling for his crucifixion is only a few short days. The difference is in scale only. The lesson is this, we can turn so quickly from praise, to indifference, and even to hatred in a shockingly short period of time. What happens in the course of that time that can shut us down so quickly or move us in entirely different directions? These are the questions that keep having to be asked of ourselves and this is why we keep returning to Lent.
For me, it is pretty easy to know what can turn my heart from adoration to indifference (or worse). Resentment, I find, can go a long way quickly. Envy, well, that works nicely too. I am also fully aware of the power of busy-ness, distraction, worry, pride and fear. I have seen the quick work they can do to move me away from being my best self. What I don’t always know right away, what I have to keep learning, is what to do about these things. What are the antidotes?
That is the sort of thing that requires some of my attention and reflection. That is something I don’t always like to give to my flaws. Heck, I am the type of guy that thinks the best way to address a funny noise the car is making is by turning the radio up. Voila! Problem gone. That is, until the car comes to a screeching halt, unable to move forward because the damage that was down by not paying attention to the clanging noise. Why won’t I learn?
That is what we are doing here in lent. Turning down the radio, rolling up the windows and actually listening to the troubling noises our soul’s engine is making.
More importantly, however, this is about getting to the mechanic. Lent doesn’t benefit us if our approach is merely to stare headlong into the abyss. Contemplating sin, however important to the process, is not the point of a season of introspection and repentance. The point is to be in a right relationship with God and others.
A right relationship with God and others is always going to begin at the same point: grace. The real benefit of clearing out noise during lent is not that we see our sin more clearly but that when we see it we see that the love of God has already beaten us there, has been there all along, and is already beginning to heal us.
As terrifying as it can be to do some self examination, it is tens times as joyful to know that whatever you find there it will be bathed in the love of God. And in the end, it is the love of God that moves us, or gets us moving again.
So perhaps it may be a good idea to give something up for Lent. Clear it some of the space and time you normally dedicate to the escaping, avoiding or paving over the painful spots, the broken places, the loud clanging of a soul’s engine in need of repair. But if your not in the habit of being able to see or recognize the love of God quickly and easily, then maybe this is a good time to stay close to those who you know who can see it.
This isn’t really about paying dues, balancing karma, or even stripping your ego. It ultimately becomes about learning to trust that love beat you there, love got there first. For when I look only at the darkness I tend to freeze up or have to turn away, but if somewhere in the process I find that I am not now, nor have I ever been alone that, at last, I am moved.