“Say something I’m giving up on you.”
It is a mournful day in Oregon, with thick heavy rainclouds and thick hearty rain, sky the color of ash. The air feels holy, and I am wearing black. The air feels holy, and I am treading an old, old path to God, a path crowded this time of year with many pilgrims.
This morning, I went to a church of a denomination I have only experienced once, when I went with a friend in another state and years ago, on a regular Sunday without the death-weight of Lent.
I went to a church today, a place I rarely believe, and God was waiting there.
It’s strange, Christianity has always been my faith and the Church my context, yet I know so little of this season. My father deconverted from Catholicism long before I was born, and my mother found faith in the much shorter evangelical tradition. I grew up at a crossroads of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, where we regarded liturgy with suspicion, considering it at best unnecessary ritual and at worst a placebo for those lacking true saving grace. You start with corporate readings, the thinking went, and you progress to rote and lifeless prayers, and you end up in some dark confession box, paying a corrupt archbishop for apostles’ bones or a piece of rotten fruit with Mary’s face.
(So yesterday when I saw everyone on social media taking pancake selfies, I initially thought it was just another dumb national “holiday” like Donut Day or Cat Day. Despite fervent googling, I’m still not quite sure what a shrove is. And I didn’t know until recently that Mardi Gras had religious roots; I thought it was a Southern cultural thing.)
My curiosity about the church calendar and its rituals began in earnest at Christmas, a season I love deeply but, honestly, not for very religious reasons. I wanted to participate in Advent beyond a few verses and pieces of candy each day, but logistics prevented me from attending any services besides on Christmas Eve and I didn’t know how to better observe it on my own. I haven’t regularly attended church since last fall, when I moved, and the few I’ve visited since then have been fine, but I can’t shake the feeling my home may be outside the evangelical methodology that has so consistently felt empty to me.
Yesterday, I read much about this denomination and a couple of others, and much about Ash Wednesday, about its meaning and practice, but when I walked into this church, I couldn’t remember if there would be communion or just the imposition of ashes, and if it would be regular communion or the Eucharist, and if I would be comfortable taking part in the body and blood when it is believed to be more than symbol, more than bread and wine. I couldn’t remember which part of the gospels this commemorated — something before the triumphal entry and the passion, but what? — or if commemorated is even the right terminology. I didn’t know how long the service would be.
I only knew that Lent is a season for grief and doubt, repentance and reflection, fasting and hope, however faint, for the spring-feast of Easter. I only knew that it is a mournful day in Oregon, a mournful season in my soul, and I need God now if I need him ever. Say something, I prayed. Say anything.
I grew up on hymns, and I miss hymns, and we sang hymns today, and they weren’t even the ones I knew, but the ones I knew were on the surrounding pages, and these new ones felt like I’d known them all along.
There was a life-sized, white, ascending Jesus on one wall. The pastors wore funny robes. The stained glass was filled with iconography I don’t understand. I stood once when I was supposed to be sitting. I shook hands and mumbled with mostly gray-haired strangers. I had ashes smeared on my forehead. It was a little weird but not uncomfortable. And God was there. If he ever speaks through ritual, he spoke today.
This path is crowded, yes, but I walk it alone; we all do. And we are dead and dying — aren’t we always, aren’t we dust? — as we wait for resurrection. It is coming, after the fast. It is coming, quick as the dust settles on a fresh grave, quick as the tombstone rolls aside.
Until then, peace be with you. Peace be with us all.