“Dust you are. To dust you shall return.”
I don’t know what I expected, but somehow the way ashes felt as they smeared on my skin surprised me. There was nothing airy and mystical about this ritual. It felt as ashes probably should, like grit and earth, holding lightness and weight together. I didn’t feel the somber emotions I expected either, but I quietly took my place back in my seat for the rest of the service.
I’ve practiced Lent off and on for the past few years, ever since I realized I was tired of Easter sneaking up, but this February marked my first step into the Ash Wednesday tradition. Chris had to work that night, so I took the step mostly alone. Somehow though, I kind of liked it that way — just me in the middle of the pew, contemplating how very short life is. The service ended in quiet and darkness. Some of us filed out in silence, while others stayed, heads bowed, until who knows how late.
After the service, I pulled my beanie down over my smudged forehead, drove around Providence in the dark (mostly lost, unfortunately), and stopped at our favorite bakery to buy two Valentine’s Day cupcakes. Strange to go straight from meditations of death to pretty little indulgences. Such is the tension of Lent.
Recently, I read this was the best season of the church calendar because there was no way the rest of the world would hijack and commercialize it to death. It makes sense. A world bent on consuming, selling, “Eat drink and be merry”; a world that uses slogans like “Because You’re Worth It” to convince us to buy something as boring as shampoo; a world that encourages every individual to be come a little god at the center of a little universe — how would that kind of world know what to do with a season of grief, reflecting on the the way our temporal bodies fade, fade, fade like summer grass? What can you do? Is Lent even a thing to celebrate?
And odder still, I wonder if even the best of us ever face this season with pure motives. For the first time in a few years, I “gave something up.” Do I think to pray when I catch myself wanting the thing I gave up? Am I going around with death on my mind, with sin and penitence coloring all my conversation in gray? Isn’t that how you’re “supposed to feel”?
This morning, as I was opening up the shades, I saw a little rustling movement on the tree outside my bedroom window. Two sparrows, hopping around in the branches, no doubt enjoying the warmer turn in weather. Spring is starting to crack the shell of winter all around me. It’s kind of hard to mourn forever.
Perhaps, that’s part of the beauty of Lent, the part that’s easy to miss when we’re tallying how we did giving up chocolate or Facebook or whatever it is. I used to think it was a solid six weeks of self-denial and moping about how awful I am. But traditionally, Sunday is a feast day, and interspersed in this season are moments of hope and celebration. We are reminded that we are dust. We are also reminded of fierce love and resurrection. We are still to gather together in hospitality, feasting, wild hope.
All of our life on earth is an exercise in learning to live in tension. We need solitude, yes, but we need other people. We are dust, but we are more than that. Our bodies are both the least and the most important aspect of our whole selves, so intwined with our souls. When religious folks, no doubt the sort who would actually do Lent “right,” took offense at Jesus’ feasting, he countered “Why would you fast when the bridegroom is here?”
We fast because we still wait. We feast because he was and is here.
We live in a remarkable state of both ashes and glory, of withering and flourishing, of sacrifice, darkness, pretty cupcakes and laughter around the table. We dream of what’s coming and what already is.
This celebration doesn’t make much sense in a soulless economy. But to us, it’s the fast and the feast worth celebrating.
Jen Rose Yokel is a poet, freelance writer, and spiritual director. Her words have appeared at She Reads Truth, CCM Magazine, and other publications, and she released her first poetry collection Ruins & Kingdoms in 2015. Originally from Central Florida, she now makes her home in Fall River, Massachusetts with her husband Chris, where you can find her enjoying used bookstores and good coffee.