"Gurgling he went under, and the River closed over his curly head. An exclamation of dismay came from the empty boat. Frodo was just in time to grasp Sam by the hair as he came up, bubbling and struggling. Fear was staring in his round brown eyes. "
~ J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Gurgling. Spluttering. I come up for air like Samwise, fear staring wide out of my blue-green eyes. The year has surged forward like a massive, unlooked-for wave, knocking me into the eddying current with nothing to cling to but the empty air. Yet like Sam, an invisible hand grasps mine, pulling me out of the swirling abyss of my fears and the rush of time. The Anchor of my soul keeps me from drifting away completely, like Frodo pulling Sam into the boat on the Great River.
I have most certainly fallen out of the boat, out of the rhythm in the dance known as the church calendar, since Epiphany. I came home and life capsized. One hardship after another has loomed up in the lives of my friends and family - hardships no one ought to have to face. Yet here they are, unexpected, unwonted. The river of time hurls me against the rocks along the bottom. Snap! I hit the end of the slack in the line between me and the Anchor: Ash Wednesday, the commencement of Lent. A rhythm. A season. A kedge.
Ashes. How strange that a season which begins with ashes ends in resurrection. The Resurrection is the true myth of the Phoenix rising from the ashes. That snags my attention. I crave the hope of new life from the sooty shards of many things: marriages, friendships, cancer, hopes crushed, and the like. I feel the sweeping motion of a cross rubbed on my forehead and the Rector reminds me, "Remember that thou art but dust, and to dust thou shalt return." This reality bites deeply today, as tomorrow I will walk alongside a companion whose mother died on Friday.
Another Friday in history, death claimed its greatest defeat: the Son of Man, God Himself. But that Friday was followed by Sunday, when the teeth of death were uprooted by the Resurrection and the Life. Our resurrection Sundays are multi-fold, as we are brought further and further into life. The more we die to self, the more we are fully alive. When everything we know is engulfed in raging flames, we are further refined. We are given cleansing and forgiveness through the ashes.
God offers us an incredible trade, Give Me your ashes and I will give you My Beauty. He always takes the 'losing' side - giving us priceless gifts in return for our brokenness, broken promises, and broken hearts. He promises to take the penalty if we break the covenant, though that is completely unheard of in covenant making. He gives us good gifts when all we have to offer is broken and marred. He clothes us in His Beauty when our grubby hands are full of cinders.
Closing my eyes I feel the cross traced on my forehead. I taste the wafer and the wine. These are more than icons, more than shadows. They are real acts, real elements that remind me of the reality that death has been, IS, defeated. Reminding me that all the burned up dreams, hopes, and relationships we are experiencing, are the ashes from which God's glory will rise. As my very dear friend said last week, "When the breaking is deeper than we think it can be, [God's] redemption must be deeper still."