I know a number of my readers at episcotheque are members of my parish, and so have already read this piece, but today I’m recycling a reflection I wrote for my parish’s Lenten devotional blog. After putting it up there, I also shared it with the professor who’s doing the ashing in the piece, and she noted that it was a powerful experience for her, too, on the other side of the ashes. “I’m kind of awed at how worship works,” she said –– yes, indeed. So, without further ado:
Calvinist traditions are not known for being particularly “liturgical,” driven by a deeply engrained iconoclasm and the inherited cultural economy of cold, northerly nations. Each year, though, the midmorning Ash Wednesday chapel service at Calvin College incorporates the imposition of ashes. Chapel attendance is noncompulsory; many students attend, and many study or sleep or talk in common areas or empty classrooms. On Ash Wednesday, the attendees stick out like dirty, sore thumbs: marked, mortal.
I attended chapel services haphazardly, but the Ash Wednesday service was one of my favorites—it was so silent, somber, still; everything my frenetic student life was not. On a typically chill and dreary day in February-Michigan, after rising from my seat and shuffling along the queue snaking the warm, blond wood of the chapel floor, I stepped toward the elevated central platform to stand in front of a favorite English professor, one of the volunteer impositors. She dipped her blackened thumb into the pot of ash and addressed me by name. “Enter the wilderness, Alissa,” she told me, crossing her thumb on my raised forehead. “Enter abundance.”
Enter the wilderness.
Neither she nor I could know what great wilderness and wild abundance were in store for me—that year and since. Those words, though, that juxtaposition stayed with me through many seasons, and rings true for me about what grace the Lenten experience holds. It’s a fast season, a spare, naked time of wilderness and absence, but it is only by living into that wilderness that I’m prepared for a deep knowledge of the Paschal feast’s astonishing abundance. Marked and mortal, we all must cross the Lenten plain, the Good Friday bridge that points toward Easter, Easter annually and Easter ultimately. It is not easy to travel the wilderness, and it is a privilege.
Enter the wilderness.