Ash Wednesday*

I like the notion of travel more than I actually like traveling.

If my mood is right and I have nothing pressing to do I can easily spend an hour exploring the world of online maps, photo essays, travel journals and the like. Just this morning, while surveying the earth using a well-known computer application, I spotted a tiny island off the northern coast of Syria, at first no larger than a few pixels on my screen. I zoomed in to see this rocky outcrop, only to discover that the entire island is covered with houses. I wondered about the people there, what their lives must be like, and I guessed by the number of small boats in the harbor that their economy is largely dependent on fishing. I zoomed in and out repeatedly, all the way out to see the island disappear into nothing, and then in again to see it fill the screen, just as it must fill the entirety of life for any child who lives there.

“I’d love to go there,” I said out loud.

Would I really?

Probably not. To actually make the journey to such a place would require a good deal of planning, money, energy and – inevitably somewhere along the way – discomfort. And even if I did manage to get into Syria and make my way to that little island, I don’t think I would want to stay long. What would I gain, other than a few photos and, hopefully, some friendly encounters with the locals? Would the trip be worth it?

I have a similar feeling about Lent. I quite like the idea of it: an annual journey, a spiritual pilgrimage to confront anew my frailty and weakness, and some of those confounding dammit-why-am-I-like-this limits to my goodness. From afar it seems like a useful and worthy exercise; I’ll be a better person for it. I joke with friends about what I will “give up for Lent this year”, which symbolic comfort will I do without on my pilgrimage? Liturgically, is it an “A” year, or a “B” year? Alcohol or Booze? No, it’s a “C”: so Caffeine or Chocolate; which is easier?

Then Lent begins. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I hear as I kneel on Ash Wednesday, my forehead submitting to the smear of an ashen cross. It’s all so solemn and serious, so pre-Easter. Where’s the satisfaction in this?

And I know that in a day or two I will be desperate for a real cup of coffee and eyeing those chocolate bars at the checkout in Safeway, which I never do otherwise but now that they are forbidden fruit they seem especially appealing.

When we read the Old Testament prophets we often have almost no context by which to understand their message. Their words hang before us like a giant mobile; heavy, disconnected, slowly shifting as we try to comprehend what exactly it was that inspired the artist to leave us this creation, the prophet to issue the proclamation.

And although it isn’t always clear how the people of God got into the mess they are in, most of the prophets are fairly clear about the way out of it: “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…” (Joel 2.12,13).

Return to the Lord. This resonates deeply with something in our human psyche. The Olympics , World Cup football, or Downton Abbey (if you must) may reach millions of television viewers, but year after year the communal human events that draw far more actual participants than any other on our planet are those involving spiritual pilgrimage. Whether it be to Jerusalem, Mecca, the Ganges, or Santiago de Compostela – wherever it is that pilgrims go – hundreds of millions give heed to their spirits telling them that to find their place with God they must get up and move.

Our Lenten pilgrimage, to have any meaning, must be more than a mere notion, a hat-tip to humility or a seven-week dietary adjustment. We make our Lenten journey so that our hearts will find a new place, a better place. As with the prophets, we may not be able to identify all that contributed to our malaise, but still we know that if we make the journey, return to God with all our hearts, we too will find grace.

“Loving God, as far as you and me are concerned, I know it would be better for me to get up and move to a new place. But that requires purpose and energy, and I’m pretty low on both of those right now; a big part of me would really rather just sit and watch the others as they go on their way. And anyway, Easter, with all its hope and triumph and happiness, seems like a far country where people speak a foreign language, words my heart can’t comprehend at the moment.

But yes, I know I need to move. Help me find the direction you have for me, and help me take that first step. Today. Amen.”


*This was submitted and printed as an op-ed piece for the Diocese of New Westminster monthly newspaper, the Topic, February 2016.

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