I have this weird cognitive dissonance in thinking about time post-Race, because I spent nearly a year organizing months based on location more than date. I have it in my head that Carnival/Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday happened in Ecuador last year, which means February, so I feel like it should still be very much February and not almost the second week of March. It's like I have to relive those memories in order and I'm two weeks behind and haven't made it to Peru yet.
(Bad memories...my team almost didn't make it to Lima because someone thought it would be fun to have a "squad race" and gave us a day or two to plan our travel. But we prayed some "level 100" prayers and got earlier bus tickets than everyone else and won, and then got rewarded with massages at Final Debrief, probably for all the stress it caused.)
But anyways, I've been thinking about the interesting comparison between my Ash Wednesday experience this year and last year.
(For starters, there are no kids running around the streets spraying everyone with silly-string/foam stuff and dumping water on us.)
I joined the choir at my church about a month ago, so I asked to come in an hour early to work so I could leave with enough time to Metro home, eat, sit for a second, and then make it to the choir call on time. So for starters, I was a part of the structure of worship as compared to last year when it was about as unstructured as you can get. (Maybe not for all my non-denominational teammates, but hey, I'm Presbyterian. We like our structure.)
There something beautiful in both of those settings though.
Ecuador, a small room, everyone sweltering because it's miserably humid but staying after our day's work to gather together. Simple Bible readings, songs, no pastors, just the ashes. My team leader did an amazing job at putting together this basically impromptu service. (Not that it wasn't well thought out, because it was, but we just used what we had on hand. I think the ashes were burnt paper scraps and we listened to music on an iPhone.)
I have lots of magical, mountaintop moments in my life that have come from quiet gatherings like this. Twelve people gathered for foot-washing at camp. Three people gathered to listen to music. Seven people gathered for the imposition of ashes.
The aesthetic appeal comes from the simplicity, the closeness. The thought that this was how the church started, not as an obligation or cultural practice but as something meaningful and personal. I wouldn't trade the "big church" opportunities I got growing up, like children's musicals and choir trips and handbells and youth group. But thanks be to God that we can still find time for the small moments too.
Washington, D.C., a stone-walled Sanctuary with stained glass, everyone complaining because it's 70 degrees in February, tired after a long day's work but gathered together. Choral chants, prayers and a short message, What Wondrous Love is This, ashes and Communion. The little ironic smiles shared when the choir stands up to sing and the pastor gives a long prayer.
As a history lover, as a story lover, what touches my soul the most about celebrating this service in a 100+ year old church is knowing how many people have done this exact thing in this exact space. Knowing that the words may change, the faces may change, but the heart is always there. The heart of love, the heart of God.
I love to be in spaces full of ghosts. Not that I think there are prank-pulling spirits roaming the halls, haunting old buildings, but the idea of people who once were and are gone. So many people have worshiped in this sanctuary, but now they are memories. Their bodies were here, but now they're gone. The important thing is, they were here. Their spirits are still here with us. It's astounding to think of all those who've gone before us.
And then I think about what Ash Wednesday means to me.
I say that my two favorite holidays are Christmas and Easter, but I think Easter has a little edge. I mostly am obsessed with the music, which makes it awesome to have a month of lead-up to sing before the actual day where we get to sing even more. But what Easter has that doesn't quite have the same punch in Christmas is the contrast. Sure, we're waiting in Advent. But waiting for a baby is happy, excited waiting.
Waiting for the cross is so different.
I love the contrast, the solemnity of Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday versus the big, loud joyfulness of Easter morning. It's a beautiful reflection of humanity.
And it is in the music of solemnity that I so often hear one of my favorite foreign words.
(We sing a lot in Latin in this choir, so lots of miserere.)
I don't think I had learned this word until I went to Spain, where I heard it plenty at mass. My first thought was, 'What does God have to do with misery and discord?'
But that's not what it means. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Jesus on the cross, the very picture of misery and discord, finishes both of them off.
Misery and discord are banished.
That's what is so compelling to me in this time of Lent. In our great, big, terrible, beautiful world, that mercy will still keep shining through.