Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Lenten love story

The first Ash Wednesday service I ever attended was a bit of a comedy of errors. I'm sure everyone realized, "She's never done this before." (Frankly, I've decided Catholics and Episcopalians have strong synapses and amazingly good motor skills, because much multitasking is involved in their services--at least the ones I've been to.) The ability to juggle the bulletin, Book of Common Prayer, hymnal and pew altar at designated points in the service requires focus and dexterity! 

At this busy (but beautiful) Ash Wednesday service, through song, sermon and prayer, the minister called us to repentance. However, I must confess that his only words I remember are the ones he spoke as he painted the cross-shaped ashes on my forehead: 
"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Looking back, I realize the reason these words affected me so deeply was the frail, elderly couple sitting two rows in front of me. They “preached” me a crystal-clear sermon about just how quickly all of us "return to dust," and how we are called to live and to love in the meantime.

You see, when it was time for me to go receive communion and the "imposition of ashes" (as they call it), I waited at the end of this couple's row to let them step in front of me. All the way out the pew and up the aisle, the husband took halting, shuffled steps, which seemed possible only with the help of his wife's tiny, mottled arm, which wrapped protectively around him.

I wondered how he would ever manage to kneel and get back up but, with her help, he did. While I did not see him take the bread and cup, I couldn't help but hear him because...every movement, every breath...was labored...costly...seemingly uncertain.

The two of them lingered there...kneeling at that altar...for several moments, with her frail little arm never unwrapping from him.

As I watched them laboriously rise from that altar and walk back down the aisle and into their pew, I wondered what sort of devotion was required to get one’s self and one’s frail husband dressed and into the car…one’s self and one’s frail husband out of the car and into the church…one’s self and one’s frail husband up the aisle to painstakingly kneel at an altar to take the bread and the cup and to get back up again.

Watching the two of them, with the newly-painted ashen crosses marking their made me sob...and I bowed my head to try to pull myself back together.

When I opened my eyes, I noticed tiny gray spots on the pages of the Book of Common Prayer, which lay open in my lap. I touched one of these spots, and it smudged. When I saw another one drifting down and landing on the page, I realized what was happening--the ashes from the newly-painted cross on my forehead were flaking off.

As I tried to brush them away without smudging the pages, I realized, “That’s where such determined devotion begins…in the flaking off…the flaking off of selfishness…the flaking off of "the old me.”

And, Jesus' cross...the forgiveness and power found the only way that “flaking off” can ever begin and can ever endure.

I've often wondered about that couple. I feel quite certain that was the last time those ashes were painted on his forehead...perhaps the last time he ever took the bread and drank the cup. But what a beautiful picture of a sacred, foot-washing kind of love he and his bride painted for us that night. 

In his book, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," C. S. Lewis also paints a beautiful picture of this "flaking off." One of the book's characters, Eustace, through pride, self-pity and greed, has taken actions that have caused him to be turned into a dragon. But, once the newness of being a fierce dragon wears off, he is miserable and very sorry for how he has treated everyone. Listen to what happens:
"I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming toward me...It told me to follow...And I knew I had to do what it told me, so I got up and followed it. And it led me to...a garden. In the middle of it was a well, which was more like a very big round bath...and I thought, 'If I could get in there and bathe, it would ease the pain in my leg' (from the jeweled bracelet that had become more like a shackle).
But the lion told me I must undress I started scratching, and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then, I scratched a little deeper,...and my whole skin started peeling off if I was a banana...In a minute or two, I just stepped out of it. I could see it laying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bath.
But, just as I was going to put my feet into the water, I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkly and scaly just as they had been before....So I scratched and tore again and (it) peeled off beautifully again and out I stepped...and went down to the well for my bath. And exactly the same thing happened again, and I thought, 'Oh, dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off?'...
Then the lion said, 'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay down and let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the old stuff peel off....
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off...And there I was as smooth and as soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me--I didn't like that very much for I was very tender now that I had no skin on--and he threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that, it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing, I found that all the pain had gone....
After a bit, the lion took me out and dressed new clothes....And then, suddenly, I was back here...
Then Eustace asked, 'What do you think it was?'
And Edmund answered, 'I think you've seen Aslan.'....
Now, it would be nice and fairly nearly true, to say that from that time forth Eustace was a different boy. But, to be strictly accurate, he (only) began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But...the cure had begun."
"Before the Passover celebration,
Jesus knew his hour had come to leave this world
and return to his Father.
He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth,
and now he loved them to the very end....
Jesus knew the Father had given him authority over everything
and that he had come from God and would return to God.
So he got up from the table, took off his robe,
wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin.
Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet,
drying them with the towel he had around him.
When Jesus came to Simon Peter,
Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You don’t understand now what I am doing,
but someday you will.”
“No,” Peter protested, “you will never ever wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.”
(John 13:1-8, NLT)

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