You and I are waiting. It is hard to wait. But such is Lent. Such is life. On Ash Wednesday, we remember from dust we are created and to dust we shall return, because we have to tell ourselves this from time to time. Most days, we are not waiting to become dust again. This is not our conscious expectation. Today is that day when we take time out to remember that time will end for us.
We often like to set up Lent for ourselves – if we even acknowledge it at all – as a time of abandonment, of self-abnegation, of self-discipline. We do this in recognition of Jesus’ time in the desert, of his time of trial, of his temptation. We have forty days within which to do this. But in order that we find that we do not do this in futility, we look forward in expectation to Easter, when the Church celebrates the return of Jesus from the dead. From Ash Wednesday, we expect Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday. We watch for the moon and mark our calendars. Every year we do this. It is reassuring. Easter will return for us. Look, it’s there. We won’t forget it. Our waiting will be over.
Some of us are awaiting the return to dust. We want the return for countless reasons. The return to dust can be a blessing. The better health we have and have about ourselves, perhaps we feel less the tug of relief that dust brings. Some of us fight it tooth and nail. It goes without saying that we have, as a culture, as a society forgotten how to die, forgotten to appreciate the gift, the sting of death. When we feel the soot and oil against our foreheads, we hear the words of our own existence. “From dust you are created and to dust you shall return.” Today, perhaps the reminder of death is soft. Perhaps, it isn’t.
We forget that the finger pressing against our brow is dust, too. Dust presses dust onto dust. When we remember we are alone, we are not alone. Dust is there with us. It embraces us. We embrace each other. We tell each other that God is with us. There are times we believe and do not believe this. We create ways to continue our belief, our disbelief, to overcome each and both. And in all of this time, we are waiting. We are waiting to experience what shall unfold, what we shall discover. Lent is about discovery and revelation, too. We stand in line and await the dust and the words. Even if it is our first time to do this, we are never the first. We all wait together. And waiting together requires a certain kind of creativity.
We create ways of enduring wait. We create and share stories and make ourselves a part of these stories. We create calendars and milestones, other measures and demarcations of time. The liturgical year and its seasons help us wait. When we acknowledge our waiting, we create a substitute, a surrogate presence for ourselves. A presence of our own making, something Promethean. We create something for us to do while we pass the time. Time we create is our distraction from uncreated time. Time we create is time we feel we control over and against time that we cannot create for our own purposes. Time we cannot control is not time for our own purposes.
Waiting has its impetus, its foundation, from which we experience lack, or worse, loss. And at this point of absence we find within us desire. And we desire for the return of what has left us, what we have lost, what we have given up. Lent sets up an exact and particular event of waiting. In the span of forty days, we create for ourselves a sorrowful emptiness of suffering that is filled by hopeless death and satiated by hopeful resurrection. We create expectations for ourselves. This is our desire.
If we are ones to “give up” something for Lent, then we desire the ability to sustain that discipline, we desire the understanding that comes from it, we desire the reaching of that goal. In discipline, we give up things that we distract us from our goal. Lack is a void that desires fulfillment, desires resolution, desires relief. Desire can only occur within time. And two events in time necessitate waiting between them. That movement of absence from event to event is desire. And desire is this fire of life being lived passionately.
On Ash Wednesday, we make manifest our desire, our sense of waiting. Upon our foreheads, we proclaim “I am awaiting death. I know it is coming.” It is our honesty to ourselves, to our neighbor, and to the stranger. To this God who is our neighbor and our stranger, we proclaim this, too. “I am not afraid,” we say. But we are afraid, if only afraid of the act of dying. To name death, to name mortality is a way of taking away that fear. The name of mortality is ash. Its mark is on our heads. And tomorrow it will be gone. We will wash it off. The ash that is left is the ash of our bodies, themselves, until we slough off this ashen, mortal coil, as well.
This Lent is a time of waiting and expectation. Awaiting loss and awaiting resurrection. Awaiting God’s presence and for God to go away for good. Awaiting justice. Awaiting answers. Awaiting answers and questions. Awaiting the end and the beginning. This is the paradox. And what are our expectations in all of this? What are we waiting for this Lent? Today, I am awaiting the touch of ash, because it gives me peace that for the moment proclaims, “This is now.” This now of paradox. And then in a moment, it is gone. And then Lent begins anew.