From The Rising: Living the Mysteries of Lent, Easter, and Pentecost
It is common to think of Heaven, God’s place, as ordered and harmonious. Dante depicted it this way in the third book of his Divine Comedy. Shining, light-filled, an eternal pearl, Dante’s holy spheres reflect the Divine Intelligence in their circling unity. So, too, Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century Benedictine abyss, in her visionary treatise, Scivias, beheld the heights of Heaven and in it the choirs of angels arranged in ever-widening concentric circles, mandala-like, their celestial voices raised in magnificent and mellifluous chorus.
As with Heaven, so with God. Our most common imaginings about God are of peace, beauty, fullness, wholeness, completion, order, and design. By extension, we often assume the spiritual life to be the same. If, however, we allow the liturgical season of Lent to carry us, we will discover that that season ushers us into a movement that is not so clearly ordered. It is most certainly not like a leisurely or even purposeful walk toward our appointed goal. The season of forty days will draw us into a movement both chaotic and creative. We enter into the rhythm of movement both chaotic and creative. We enter into the rhythm of disequilibrium – indeed, of dying – essential to the formation of new life.
That God might be imagined as chaotic and creative as well as ordered and complete is perhaps not a new idea in human history, but it became quite apparent to me only a few years ago. (Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology develops this idea.) My husband, three children, and I traveled to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to visit friends in a religious community. As part of our entertainment, our hosts took us into the city to the Omni Theater, an educational facility attached to the Science Museum. There, in a large oval auditorium with steeply banked seats, surrounded on all sides and above by a domed projection screen, we witnessed the current natural science program. It was entitled “Ring of Fire,” and documented, in a most vivid way, the activity of the volcanic range that rims the entire Pacific basin. We were visually and auditorially submerged in the hot, fiery eruptions that constitute the Pacific ring of volcanoes.
What the film presentations made very clear was that this tumultuous, destructive energy was the very energy that seethed at the core of our Earth, the very energy at the root source of all earthly life. Creation itself was not ultimately stable, not orderly in some static way; rather order or temporary calm alternated with this chaotic dance of shifting energy, destruction, emergence, and upheaval. It occurred to me there, with my seven-year-old son pressed close against my arm to assure himself of some dependable, protective presence in the face of the larger-than-life spewing volcanoes that surrounded him, that if we are to allow the created world to speak analogously of the divine to us, then God as creative principal was probably as much like this tumult of flaming lava and bursting steam as God was like a lush, fruit-filled garden watered by crystal streams. And that the process of growing into God’s image was as aptly pictured by the wild creativity of the ring of fire as it was by Dante’s luminous globes of pearl or Hildegard’s circles of celestial singers.
The forty days of Lent celebrate the dismembering, disequilibrium, and dying that are preludes to the creative transformation of Eastertide. It is a season of being changed and emptied so that new life might come to birth in us and resurrection be found in us as well.
I admit that most people do not immediately associate Lent with fiery eruptions. It is more typical to see the season as an opportunity for self-discipline or spiritual enrichment. The ancient custom of giving up things for forty days is deeply ingrained in the Christian psyche. Roman Catholics still forego little luxuries like sweets or movie-going or more pernicious luxuries like alcohol or tobacco. Eastern Orthodox Christians still observe the ancient food abstinences from meat, fish, eggs, and milk products. Further, Lent is seen as a time of seriousness. Churches of all denominations offer programs of prayer and scripture study. Wednesday soup suppers followed by prayer services are common, as are programs focused on healing. Churches may sponsor a “Talent Project,” “One Great Hour of Sharing,” or “Rice Bowl,” collections. To deepen one’s faith during Lent through study, charitable activity, or contemplative exercise is quite a common practice. These may not be activities of volcanic proportions, but their practice has much in common with the molten energy seething under the Pacific ring of fire. Both change things. And Lent is about change: of heart, or perspective, of focus, of the death that precedes new life.
Ashes to Ashes
“Even now,” says our God,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and with mourning:
rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the God who made you,
for God is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
Who knows whether we may not turn and repent,
leaving behind us a blessing,
offerings and libations for the Most High God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Make holy the congregation;
assemble the elders;
gather the children,
even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her chamber.
Between the vestibule and the altar
let the ministers of the Most High, weep
and say, “Spare your people, O God,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”
Then you, O God, became jealous for your land,
and had pity on your people.
This season of change is ushered in on Ash Wednesday by a trumpet call and one of the most memorable of ritual gestures practiced by Christian communities – the imposition of ashes. Although Ash Wednesday is not an obligatory observance on the church calendar, churches are habitually filled on this day. There is something about the gesture of marking the sign of the cross on one’s forehead with ashes that captures the religious imagination. It is a gesture that explicitly calls to mind our mortality. “Remember you are human,” or “From dust you came, to dust you will return,” are the words that traditionally accompany the signing of the cross that leaves that unmistakable black smudge on one’s forehead.
The thought is sobering but not morbid. For the truth is that, considering the larger scheme of things, we live only a very short time. And the reminder of that reality can serve to put our present situation into clear perspective. It is not uncommon to read in the human interest section of the newspaper a story about a woman or man whose diagnosis of a terminal or life-threatening illness has brought about a radical change of heart. Suddenly, he or she examines priorities, sees superficial concerns for what they are, casts them aside, and determines to live each day with gratitude and fearlessness.
Ash Wednesday is such a diagnostic moment for all of us. The ritual is strikingly simple and ruthlessly egalitarian. None of us is excused from the process. The smudgy mark does not adhere differently to man or woman, wealthy or destitute, educated or ignorant, compassionate or cruel. It labels us as one of the species, one of the mortals, who like everything else in this created universe will lose its present form. We will die. This is a certainty we share with each other. Knowledge of this radical sharing of our destiny draws us together at the onset of the season of Lent.
Sometimes the ritual of ashes takes on special significance in a given year. Two such years are tucked into my own memory and give depth and resonance to the celebration each time I observe it. The first was in the early 1970s. I was in the middle of an extended retreat in a Trappist monastery in Northern California, and my aptitude for attentiveness was brought to the fore and honed in the prayerful silence of the monastic environment. In such a milieu, spare and slow paced, gestures seem highlighted, and the ritual of Ash Wednesday stood out in high relief. There were no more than a dozen of us present: the sisters of the community, myself, and the grizzled old Belgian priest-monk who officiated at their liturgies. We formed a circle in the grey stone sanctuary with its spare zen aesthetics and its one glass wall that situated us as tiny beings surrounded by the towering redwood forests. One by one we handed around a wooden bowl containing the ashes. The person on the left marked the forehead of the person on the right with a cross. Then the one just marked turned to the right and repeated the symbolic gesture.
I knew these women. We had prayed, eaten, worked, and conversed together for weeks now. One of them turned solemnly to me, in full sight and hearing of the others, and calling me by name with the tenderness of a mother blessing her child, announced the fact of my mortality. Then I turned to another of them, spoke her name, and imprinted on her skin and mind the fact of our shared mortality. Ash Wednesday came alive for me in all its communal poignancy.
The other memorable celebration occurred when my first child was just a little girl, perhaps two or three. She was in tow as I attended an early evening service of ashes in our mission parish in Santa Barbara. The day was chilly and the old church, with its tile floors and adobe brick walls, was uncharacteristically sparsely populated. The celebrant’s voice echoed down the tunnel of the nave and the gathering dusk cast deep shadows over the otherwise colorful artwork and statuary covering the walls. My daughter was demurely observant for a short while and then discovered that her own voice, as well as the celebrant’s, could send thrilling echoes through the air. She began to crow in the delighted way children do when they discover some wondrous new effect of nature. Her thin soprano rang out in the gloom and chill, a bright note of vitality and newness in contrast to the somber setting and the solemn day. Just then we were called forward for the distribution of ashes. I gathered her upon my hip and moved forward but was startled when, as we moved to the front of the procession, the celebrant reached out and, parting my daughter’s soft blonde bangs, marked her small forehead with the ashen sign of the cross. “Remember, you are human. From dust you came, to dust you will return.” The fragility of life and its certain impermanence was suddenly painfully clear. Even this young creature, so fully alive, so much an image of promise and strength, even she wore the mark we all do. The poignant mystery of life with its cycles of emergence and decay, of mothers and children, of birth and death was clear.
The trumpet blast of Joel’s prophecy signals the beginning of the season of change. Gather the people – all of them. We need to be alerted to the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves. We would like to live in ultimate control. We would prefer to be able to predict our futures and sketch our own life designs. But, in truth, we are merely collaborators in a larger design which is neither entirely under our control nor of our individual making.
By this, I do not mean to suggest that we should lead willy-nilly lives, buffeted about by every changing fad and circumstance. We do need to be intentional in our choices. We do need discipline, rhythm, and design to shape our work, our worship, and our relationships. What I am referring to is an ultimately very deep and existential trust in the process of life itself, a trust in the providence of God.
We live, as spiritual people, in the same way we do as biological inhabitants of this Earth, most noticeably those who dwell on the rim of the Pacific ring of fire. Perched on the surface on the globe in carefully constructed protective structures, grouped in communities intended to provide us with the food, livelihood, health assistance, and nurture that we require, we proceed from day to day all too oblivious of the larger eco-system on which we are dependent. Beneath us, with magnitude and force unimagined by us, the restive energy of created life seethes. A vast pattern of creative movement churns under our feet, interrupting and shaping the careful choreographies with which we dance our lives.
The gesture of the imposition of ashes is an invitation into the larger creative reality that undergirds our thoughtfully constructed lives. It is an invitation to change and to grow, and in the process to die to the narrowness and limitations of the familiar selves of our present making.