Pale dawn light was peeking in the bedroom windows when I opened my eyes. Rolling over onto my back I began to think, as I do each morning upon first awaking, about what day it was and what jobs I wanted to accomplish before night fall. It was already the middle of the week! At the beginning of winter, I had assigned Wednesdays as the day to do my once a week wood-pellet-furnace cleaning. If I wanted the fire out and the firebox cool enough for me to clean it by the time I was dressed, had finished my morning prayers and eaten breakfast, I needed to turn it off now.
Slipping out of bed, I thrust my feet into slippers and slowly shuffled toward the staircase. As I passed the living room, I noticed a doll laying in the middle of the floor. My daughter and her children had visited me last night as they do every Tuesday evening. The rest of my trip to the basement was spent thinking about my grandchildren. How protectively my grandson Ben had held his little sister Gemma when she cried! What a funny face toddler Blaise had made when he sucked on the fresh lemon wedge, yet kept going back for more! A flip of a switch and the furnace was off.
Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, landed on March 1st this year. I hadn’t started my winter routine of cleaning the furnace every Wednesday with this in mind, but today I chuckled about spending my day in ashes, both secular and liturgical.
Each year a huge number of people start Lent at church services where they have an ashy cross rubbed onto their foreheads. As this is done, they are told, “You are dust and unto dust you shall return.” or are advised, “Turn away from sin and live according to the gospel.” I like starting Lent this way. Sometimes when people see the sooty cross on my forehead, they become aware that a penitential season is beginning and think about their own salvation.
Ashes are not just a Roman Catholic Church phenomenon. Other Christian denominations, like Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican churches engage in this practice if their pastor or priests are open to the practice.
Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and lasts six weeks. People who observe Lent are advised to fast, pray and give alms. As a child, I was told to give up things that I liked during Lent. The most frequent sacrifice I made was giving up the occasional chocolate or candy treats given to me. If someone gave me candy, I put it into a jar for safe keeping until after Lent was over. Praying extra family rosaries and attending weekly stations of the cross services every Friday afternoon before school let out insured that we prayed more. As for alms, the sisters who taught us always took-up collections for our missionaries and orphan babies.
The way I experience Lent has changed through the years. As an adult I think more about why I am giving up pleasures, find deeper meanings in Lenten prayers and willingly ramp-up contributions to my favorite humanitarian and spiritual charities.
The seven days before Easter is called Holy Week. I love several different church services and traditions during this time. Holy Week is also a time of sad remembrance for me. My husband unexpectedly died ten years ago, on Monday of Holy week. That year the date was April 2nd. Easter is on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, so the date of his death hasn’t coincided with the Monday of Holy Week since then. I observe two death dates, whatever date Holy Week Monday lands on and April 2nd.
Lent will be halfway through when this article is posted on my blog. I will have cleaned a bucketful of ashes out of my furnace by then. Hopefully by Easter, April 16th, I will be able to shut-down the pellet furnace for the summer. That is as symbolic for me as having the sooty cross etched onto my forehead, because the furnace has so often given me grief. Easter is the time for me to set aside grief for my husband, too, to enjoy the hope and great gift which Jesus has given to mankind through his resurrection. Though we are ashes and to ashes we will return, there is life beyond this life. I will once again be reunited with my loved ones.