Glitter in the Ashes

On this Ash Wednesday, the Mardi Gras beads still cling effortlessly to Crepe Myrtle branches at the sanctuary entrance.  It’s always a wonderful contrast of optics.  In the foreground are little cheap plastic strands of merriment thrown from double-decker floats.  Directly behind them stands a gothic revival house of worship dressed in its finest arches and stained glass.

On a calendar page, the transition from Fat Tuesday to Ash Wednesday is about as sharp as it gets.  We go from feast to fast… from laughter to tears… from sequins to sackcloth all at the strike midnight.

It seems like such a sudden stop – at least on the page.  But off the page, in the living and breathing calendar we carry within, the transition between these two seasons isn’t nearly so abrupt.  These first few days of Lent represent an in-between time – emotionally, if not liturgically.  There’s still leftover King Cake sitting on my counter.  The beads and doubloons have not yet been stored away in the attic.  Not to mention I’m pretty sure I saw a few flakes of purple, green and gold glitter in the ashes for our service today.

We come to this day carrying both experiences with us.  We always do.  And I can’t help but think it’s true for other days besides this one.

The season of Lent plays such a necessary role in the life of the Church.  This is when we slow the ramble and ruckus of our minds.  When we ponder our own mortality and the larger scope of human frailty.  When we give more than lip service to words like sacrifice and suffering love.  But the power of these days is in their juxtaposition with the days that bracket them before and after.  It’s the same juxtaposition of multi-colored beads in the trees standing sentinel at the sanctuary doors.

Inside those very doors, I look at the sturdy arches and ponder everything that takes place within the walls.  I think about all the reverence.  The silence.  The prayers sent up beyond the elder oak rafters.  This is where we share broken bread and wine as a sign of grace.  This is where we strain our ears in pursuit of some holy word.  It’s where we go deep into the waters of baptism marking us for eternity.  This is where we bless tiny babies with a love to grow into… and where we bid farewell to brothers and sisters as they enter the arms of God.  Very serious business, all of it.

But no less serious is the divine imperative nudging us toward joy and delight.  And while there is on this day an awareness of our shadows and dust, there remains in my recent memory the lingering echo of shouting children and smiling faces.  The dangling beads help me get through these days, bolstering my gratitude for a faith community that loves a parade.

The beads remain in our trees year round.  And they get replenished with every passing parade.  But I’ve decided that even if the parades cease, unlikely as that may be, my neighbors on Jackson Street will occasionally find me standing under the Crepe Myrtle branches.  Carrying an armload of purple, green and gold plastic trinkets, I plan to take aim at the barren, wooden fingers.  As he rode into Jerusalem for the final time, Jesus said, “Even the rocks cry out.”  And maybe the trees do, too.  Throw me something, mister.  Because everyone loves a parade.