“Even now, you could return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.”
On Ash Wednesday, I return to an in-person Mass for the first time in 12 months, almost exactly to the day.
In an unadorned lecture hall, I stand apart from the eight others in attendance. When the ashes come, they are sprinkled on the top of our bowing heads, trickling down onto our masked faces. The Eucharist, like so many other things this year, comes in a bubble of plastic, protecting and protected, shielded and sanitized. As I hold Christ in my hand, tears come unbidden. Even here, even after a year away, plastic barriers remain between us.
If this was a different year, Lent might arrive with its usual gusto — a second shot at New Year’s resolutions, bold promises made, with the added motivation of some good old-fashioned Catholic guilt (and a bit of real devotion, too). Lent might have arrived in grandeur, in violet robes of power, asking us to be a bit less human to become a bit more like God.
And yet, it is not a different year, unfortunately. This year, Lent arrives like everything else has during a global pandemic: through a screen, pressing through plastic, untouching and untouchable. It arrives quietly to a world of people already separated and already sacrificing.
At least, this is how Lent arrived for me: in a beige auditorium with a sparse congregation, bowing before a foldable card table as an altar, my prayer distracted by the plastic wrapping of the Eucharist labeled “LOW GLUTEN.” As the first reading begins, it is difficult for me to remain open to hearing it, neither prepared nor invigorated to give up anything else for six weeks, not needing any reminder that I am fleeting, fragile, and not in control.
Even now, you might return to me.
With your whole heart, with your weeping, with your mourning.
Rend your heart, for I am merciful.
As my mind traces the swirling pattern on the carpeted floor, these first lines reverberate as though something holy might be present.
Even now, you might return to me.
Even now, you might come to me and show me your broken hearts.
Most especially now, you might love me by letting me into the small room of your despair, not the cathedral to your self-discipline and devotion.
Lent, as a season, is a bit peculiar: as a community, we prepare for resurrection by focusing intently on death. In the past, mostly by grace, I have seen this season as it is most likely intended — a benediction of pain — and I wonder if this is the year we may actually be the most ready for Lent. In its fullest meaning, Lent births hope not through bypassing grief, but instead by saying, “Yes, this too will come along. Stay here a bit longer.” As I stand in this unimpressive Ash Wednesday service with no previous plans or promises made for the 40 days ahead, I am with God unprotected, unimpressive and, finally, unmasked.
I have to be fair to the Theology department at Notre Dame. While studying the mysteries of Catholic liturgy in another plain auditorium, I was taught this truth about Lent — I just didn’t need to hear it yet. I did learn (or, at least, I wrote down) that these six weeks are not for our own achievement and spiritual self-improvement, but rather a time to join together our tender humanity and pains with the person of Christ. Lent was never officially taught to me as a season for some sort of mystical transaction that, through our correct fasting and giving, would earn us a free pass out of crucifixion, death or pain. Written and highlighted twice, my college notes reflect a better vision: Lent offers us Christ’s sorrow as the true safe place, the tabernacle to hold the very divinity of our own grief with His.
Most importantly, I was taught that there is no one quite as well-prepared in holding sorrow than this Jesus of Nazareth fellow. Who would be better to weep with us than this man who knew loss and sorrow, as he cries with Mary and Martha at the grave of his dear friend? Who would know more of what it was like to feel as though everything is hopeless than this abandoned man who begs in the Garden to not have things be the way they are? There are few better than the person of Christ to hold us in unsolvable grief. There are few who know better what it means to live through a season uncertainty, despair and despondency than this earthen, broken God.
Lent has always asked that we make an offering of a rent heart and burnt ash, and for some reason it is more difficult than any exacting fast or almsgiving has ever been. If anything has been learned this year, it is that it is easy to offer perfection to others, but it is far more demanding to reveal and offer our wounds and unsolved pains. Nothing feels quite so dangerous and complete as an offering to another of what is raggedy, unsmoothed over and wailing. In our closest relationships, we might find there are few experiences that draw us deeper into love than the intimate offering and witnessing of a grief that we are both powerless to fix. Breaking like the clay we are, we are mended simply by another staying with us through the dark. This becomes the fullest gift of love.
The alchemy of Lent is this transfiguring intimacy: Our grief may not only be prevented from becoming further wounding, but may become the deepest place from which we love and in which we are loved — by others and by God. We are offered something miraculous in which pain might not only be tolerated or obliterated from memory, but resurrected as part of the whole taken up into goodness. What we really want is not God to erase pain from our memories, but for our sorrow to mean something of beauty. The mystery of Easter confirms this, for as Christ emerges from the tomb it is not without the stigmata. The Christian Resurrection is not life ignorant of pain or a story of all grief conquered, but rather of new life that makes something out of everything that has been before.
Even now, in this tattered world, in this beige, empty auditorium, we might return to Him — masked, through plastic, in surrender. Perhaps to enter Lent this year is to make a first real offering of ashes in which we might love God with our whole and rent hearts. We might return to God as the place of refuge where pain is not erased, but brought alongside and with the story of a someday resurrection.
Even now, we might still return to Him.
Margaret Duncan is a medical student at Washington University in St. Louis. She can be reached at Margaret.Duncan@Wustl.edu.