God of Ash Wednesday, whose hands first gathered dust to create us, whose Spirit breathed new life into brittle bones, whose fingers traced the sand to save a sinner, take the dirt of my life - the tempers lost, the doors slammed, the complaints muttered, the harsh words thrown, the dark doubts seethed - take all these flaws and failings and burn them blazing in the fire of forgiveness. Gather the dust that lingers, the ashes streaked across your healing hands, and trace the ancient cross once again across my forehead. Press its humbling love deep into my mind and heart, let it sink into my soul reminding me that life is fleeting as the dark grey dust. And when I see the same stark sign of sin and death marked on the soft faces of my children, let me breathe in the beauty of now, this present we have together, this gift of a life shared no matter how dark or dry it sometimes seems. Let the touch of another's hand on my bowed head remind me of resurrection, of hope and promise that we are mere dust and yet more - beloved in your eyes, our chins cupped in your hands with a parent's loving touch, our faces traced by the same fingers that forever bear the prints of every ashen life they touch. Amen.
For over a week, half a post for Ash Wednesday sat waiting for me to finish it. And it started like this:
Anyone else feel like the gentle green of Ordinary Time just got yanked out from under their feet, and now they’re sitting plop in the purple of Lent, scratching their head and wondering how we got here so fast?
Is it even allowed to be Mardi Gras before Valentine’s Day?
Or am I the only anxious one who still has Christmas thank-yous on her to-do list?
From whence it wandered into ramblings about how maybe the fact that the dates for Easter and Lent change every year keeps us on our toes, on edge even, makes us more mindful or less likely to lull into complacency.
Which bumped into Scriptural allusions about how you know neither the day nor the hour.
(Which was apparently going to wrap back round to parenting or family life or something else that this blog claims to be about.)
But then we all woke up to the papal game-changer of the century (or rather, six centuries) and the looming start of Lent seemed even more surprising as we all sat around puzzling and pontificating (ha) about how we could possibly have a new pontiff by the time these forty days finished.
So now what are we supposed to do, I wondered. I thought about scrapping this post completely. But then it struck me that if this news is the Hayley’s Comet of ex cathedra announcements, I better scrape together two words about an all-points-bulletin Catholic news story that will surely never come again in my lifetime.
And that was precisely when it hit me:
Perhaps the early Ash Wednesday and the unexpected announcement from Benedict aren’t so far apart after all.
Both remind us of mortality, a sobering reminder that we are all dust and to dust we shall return.
Both mark the beginning of a time of great change, a season of renewal.
Both capture the popular imagination in surprising ways.
Ever try to find a parking spot at an Ash Wednesday service five minutes before it starts? Good luck. Catholic churches are crammed on this unofficial holy day. Every year I notice more and more people packed into the pews. Something about this simple penitential practice, this smear of ash on foreheads, touches us deeply.
Ditto Benedict’s decision. Sure, yesterday was full of ignorant chatter and conspiracy theories and snarky Catholic jokes. But it was also full of surprising resonance, of reporters and religion professors and regular church-goers agreeing that resignation could be wise, that retirement could be well-deserved, that respect was due to a powerful leader who knew when to step down, when to take leave of a calling that was ending.
It’s the eve of ashes, and it all feels surprising. But it’s always jarring when death interrupts life, isn’t it? When reminders of mortality upend our neatly planned calendars of The Way Things Are Supposed to Go?
Weren’t we were just waving our palms to welcome him in? Are they really so quickly burned to ash again?