Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and there will be a special worship service here at St. Andrew’s-Wesley, at 7 pm tonight, in the Chapel. It’s not a “popular” or well-attended service in the United Church. But I remember four years ago, during my time as Moderator, when I was in Bogota, Colombia on Ash Wednesday and decided to go to a morning service at a nearby Catholic church.
Imagine my surprise to discover the church was full to overflowing, and when the brief service ended there were long line-ups, hundreds of us waiting to receive the mark of ashes on our foreheads. During the rest of the day, as I wandered about the city, it seemed that every other person was similarly marked. It was a strange sight… and sobering, knowing that everyone bearing the ash symbol had heard the priest softly say, “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.”
Lent is a pondering time, an opportunity to think about some of those questions about life’s meaning that too often get neglected in the day to day busy-ness. Questions like… “Who am I? What’s truly important to me? What am I doing with my life? When I look at myself in the mirror, what do I see? What am I doing with my dreams, with my regrets?” And there’s nothing like being reminded of your mortality to give some oomph to those questions.
In our culture, we are encouraged to avoid thinking about death, and we go merrily along, pretending we have all the time in the world. It’s not true, and in our hearts, we know that to be so… it’s why that Ash Wednesday ritual can be such a helpful reminder.
Ash Wednesday goes further than simply being a stark reminder of our limited time. The phrase, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return,” is traditionally followed by some kind of statement that invites, no, calls us to “Repent!”… which is to say, “Turn your life around. Change the way you are living. Let go of a way of being that sucks the life out of you.” Thus, Lent invites us both to think seriously about our days, asking, a la Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” AND THEN … to start making changes.
This Lent season many of us will be reading Eric Elnes’ book, Gifts of the Dark Wood, in which he suggests that struggles and hard times can become moments of discovery. Finding ourselves uncertain, or facing emptiness and loss, these experiences can, with grace, become a gift, … a bit like having ashes on your forehead and being reminded that you will soon return to the dust from which you came.
I was recently reading a book of essays by Ursula Le Guin, who, when she was 80, was asked what she did with her “spare time.” Her response is something to ponder in the season of Lent:
To a working person… spare time is the time not spent at your job or at otherwise keeping yourself alive, cooking, keeping clean, getting the car fixed, getting the kids to school. To people in the midst of life, spare time is free time, and valued as such … But to people in their eighties? What do retired people have but “spare time? … When all the time you have is spare, is free, what do you make of it? And what’s the difference really, between that and the time you used to have when you were fifty, or thirty, or fifteen?
… The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case, I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living … I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up with kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, … None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it… I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.
(from No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, Ursula Le Guin, 2017)