By Denise Trull
Lent. We see it sometimes as creeping slowly up upon our joy, like a spreading shadow as February makes its blustery way to the end of the calendar page. We feel a little sense of dread, if we are honest, as we see it approaching. A dread that seems to sigh just a bit at the thought of forty days with no this or that. Forty days of resolutions kept, and sometimes broken or even forgotten; unraveling as the weeks march on. Forty days that will show us in glaring relief what kind of stuff we are actually made of. And so often we discover, sometimes to our horror, that we are as weak and unfaithful and trudging and stubborn as sin. It always comes as a rude awakening how truly worthless we are at serving God consistently and generously even if it be for just forty short days. It is what St. Francis aptly calls Brother Ass - our sinful self. And no one wants to see an ass when he or she looks into the mirror. All of this seems to make Lent a dark and dismal affair. And often, like a reluctant ass, we need to be pulled into it kicking and screaming.
In reality, though, Lent can be a most beautiful kindness, if we have eyes to see. For it is filled with the promise and mercy of Divine goodness. Holy Mother Church enfolds Lent into the most hope-filled, albeit stark, season of the year; early spring. A season that teaches us what it means to die, but also what it means to have life where no life was before. We can see this transformation before our very eyes in the natural world around us as we make our way through the days. The earth is still gray and barren but the wind smells wild and delicious with possibilities. If you stand really still you can feel it - an anticipation of life beginning to stir even though you can’t see it quite yet; an “Aslan is on the move” kind of feeling coming off the trees and water, which have their counterpart hidden in your soul - all those glimmers of wisdom and growth being gained slowly from faithfully keeping Lenten sacrifices day by day; and inner growth slowly brings the small green shoots of hope that echo the promise of truly being one day “a new man” and no longer Brother Ass. This beautiful, stark waiting edged in light. It’s so hard but you don’t want it to be other than it is somehow.
The Catholic Church is a Mother and like any loving Mother she helps us to wait patiently for our transformation. She gives us things to do, to see, to feel as the forty days unfold; things that only happen during this time of year. They help us to attend, to stay faithful to our promises, and to know the quiet presence of God. We must pay attention to them.
Lent is that good, empty stomach feel of a fast day. It is the ashes in a bowl, the smell of beeswax candles, and the ancient swirls of past Lents floating in the incensed air of an old city Church. It is the sound of prophets calling us to repentance, leading us solemnly to the feet of our God who is pleading like a lover, “Come back to me.” It is the feel of hard kneelers and the murmured prayers of the Stations as the priest makes his way from pew to pew holding up the corpus of Christ lit softly by candles in the dim air of a Friday afternoon; so near that you can reach out and touch Him as He passes.
Lent is Palms sharp and green, it is the sound of chattering sparrows and cardinal calls across trees when you make your way to Mass in the early morning. It is the quiet joy of a good confession creeping over your heart with its gift of tears. It is the rich exotic smell of chrism, the clapper sound at the Holy Thursday consecration. It is the bare and stark altar of Good Friday and the empty tabernacle with door gaping wide like an empty womb and you wonder with a sharp pain in your heart, "What if He had never come?" But then, then the comforting, faint, sweet scent of lilies waiting in the wings of the open doored sacristy - like portents of His promised rising.
This is a time to touch, to hear, to see, and feel; this time of Lent. To help our senses rejoice in the God we cannot see through all the beautiful symbols and customs the Church gives us. Our salvation slowly comes into focus as our forty days march on and on until they leave us at the tomb, where we wait with Mary for the Lord.
Today is Ash Wednesday. The first day of the forty. It is a good beginning. Today is the day we realize that we are not alone on this journey. We walk all together. There is a wonderful quality of both simple, homelike charm and grave solemnity in the First Reading of Ash Wednesday's Mass. I look forward to it every year. When I was a mom with toddlers, I took this reading as a direct sign from God that, yes, indeed, children were most welcomed by Him at Mass. Not only welcomed, but an essential part of the solemn gravity of the whole assembly brought together by "the blow of the trumpet in Zion!" God has summoned even the newborn. He has summoned the elders, the children, the infants at the breast, bridegrooms, brides...the WHOLE people of God. And then the priest who stands between the altar and the porch, gathers up the whole congregation and offers them to the Most High, weeping in supplication for us his flock. I am not a priest. I do not in the least presume to know what a priest is thinking and feeling when he turns to see the assembly in the pews. I do think his heart must be stirred by the sight of all those moms, dads, elders, children, infants at the breast, the smallest of all - depending on his prayers and leadership. I strongly suspect his heart must sometimes "burn within him" at the sight of it. He offers us all to the Father, in his own humble fear and trembling at the Consecration of the Mass.
In the end, we are marked with ashes; ashes made from the burnt palms of last year’s Palm Sunday. We wear the remnant of those palms on our foreheads today to remind us of our fickleness. All the times we raised our voices in easy hosanna and then betrayed Him. We are humbled by this knowledge, but we also find a wonder that He loved us unto death anyway when we feel the sign of our salvation traced upon our forehead. The priest could very well say, “Remember man that you are fickleness and to fickleness you shall return,” lest we think we are anything better than the humble asses we have always known we were. But not just any ass. An ass beloved by the Lord and led by Him unto a beautiful transformation that eye has not seen and ear has not heard.
Lent is all this. Let us welcome it with joy and readiness. Let us not be dragged into it, but let us run to meet it. We might just hear, on the wild, delicious air - “Aslan’s on the move.” The adventure awaits, calls our Beloved Christ. “Come and see.”
*Image from our Stations of the Cross Cards.