Our Ash Wednesday begins a little weakly. Between a sick baby, a bloody nose, and a bathroom break, all four of my children end up in our bedroom at some point the night before. Sleep largely eludes me and I feel rundown and fuzzy getting the kids off to school.
I wanted to be more prepared to celebrate Lent, to be alert and ready for these 40 days before Easter. But perhaps feeling weak and exhausted is a more appropriate way to begin this season anyway.
When my husband, our baby, and I join the small Presbyterian church down the street for an Ash Wednesday service, the pastor reads from Joel 2:
"Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing...
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast."
He points to our child with that last line and smiles. He imposes the ashes, whispering: "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." Even my baby has the ashen cross marked on his smooth, soft forehead. He looks around at the other parishioners, smiling and clapping, his eyes drawn to their faces and to the lights on the ceiling.
Remember you are fragile like this baby. Remember you are weak.
Remember. Remember. Remember. You are going to die.
In Kate Bowler's new book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved about her struggle with Stage Four cancer, she recalls a peace and deep sense of love that descends upon her at her most fragile moments. In an interview on Fresh Air Bowler says that in this proximity to death, she suddenly recognizes how fragile every one of us is: the exhausted mother at the checkout line with screaming children, the other cancer patients in chemo, her own family members.
Bowler's body will not let her forget that she is fragile. But the rest of us don't always remember.
Lent asks us to remember our own mortality. But these forty days ask us for something else. We are to simmer in the reality of Jesus' suffering. When we hope to sneak around the Crucifixion and bolt straight to Resurrection, Lent tells us to go back. Go back to the suffering and lean into it.
What can we hope to gain from leaning into the suffering of Jesus?
In Bowler's book, a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer herself, says to Kate: "'I have known Christ in so many good times...And now I will know Him better in His sufferings."'
When we lean into Lent, we are participating more in the suffering of Jesus. But when we ourselves suffer, God isn't crying tears in heaven for us. No, God is among us, knowing what it feels like to be exhausted from sleepless nights, to be anxious and depressed, to grieve those who have died, and to even to suffer through painful chemo treatments.
If we aren't already going through trials--and many of us are--Lent sweeps us back this community of suffering with Christ, who is always with us in our breathing, our pain, our life and our death.
Lent asks us to gather together, the young and the old, the fragile and the strong, and remember that God is present with us and we ought to be present with one another too.
"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."