About seven years ago, I was hugely pregnant with my first child, and experiencing my first Lenten season as an ordained clergywoman. The head pastor of the church I served had planned a trip out of the country for two and a half weeks – a once in a lifetime event – long before I knew I was pregnant. And so, I found myself in charge of the church, by myself, for a good chunk of the Lenten season. Naturally, two members of our congregation died during his time away, and so I was left to meet with grieving families and make arrangements.
I was not new to grief and loss. For the past year I had been serving alongside of my part-time work in the church as a Hospice Chaplain, reaching out to and meeting with families in the final days of long terminal illnesses, facing imminent death of a loved one. But, I was shiny-faced, youthful, and (I might add again…) HUGELY pregnant.
The first grieving family I went to see looked at me with alarm, and immediately offered me a chair and a snack. While I assured them I had eaten before I had arrived and I was fine, they were highly aware of my ‘condition,’ (I looked like I could go into labor at any moment.) I was, on the other hand, highly aware of their loss, the grief they were enduring, and the stories they might long to tell about their beloved father.
Not only that, but I was also facilitating a grief group at the Hospice Offices. Once a week, I was leading ten adults in conversations about dealing with loss, moving through grief, seeking a “new normal” after tragedy. I would come home from these days exhausted, and yet thankful. It was as if my hyper-awareness of my own mortality made real the joy of life that was within me and around me.
There I was, surrounded with death, bursting with life.
In Psalm 103, one of the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday, the psalmist seems to understand this perfectly. “Bless the Lord, my soul!” he sings. He speaks of redemption, and forgiveness, of mercy and justice. But he speaks as someone who knows brokenness, sin, suffering and oppression. He speaks of death: “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more..” And yet in the face of that death the Psalmist continues to sing of blessing and God’s steadfast love, “from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him.”
This is how I understand Ash Wednesday, the gateway of the season of Lent. We mark ourselves with ashes to remind us of the dust from which we came and to which we will return. We mark ourselves with ashes to show that we know this journey of faith is one surrounded by death, and yet bursting with life. Our walk of faith is one that holds both of these in our hands, together: death and suffering, life and hope. Our path with Christ is one toward death on the cross, and beyond into resurrection and new life. In all we find the steadfast love of God surrounding and supporting us. In all we find blessing.