February 6, 2008 – Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday at last. Lent really is here now, and it’s one, slow, steady progression from now to Easter. I like that idea in theory, anyway…that idea of unremitting progress toward a holy day…except that Lent is not as even and unpunctuated a progression as that makes it sound like. It has its particular days that I especially anticipate or am formed by or just outright treasure. I never tried ranking those days up until now; but were I to do so, I think today–Ash Wednesday–would be #2 on the list after Good Friday.
I travel about a good deal in conjunction with my work; but every week that I am at home is marked by one immutable event. Every Wednesday in every week that I am here, I go to Ruthe’s. Like Sam and me, she and her husband live deep in the country in an area considerably north of Memphis, TN and only slightly east of the Mississippi River. I’ve been going tp Ruthe’s on Wednesdays for so many years now that neither of us can remember when we commenced.
I am what we Epicopalians call a LEM, or a Lay Eucharist Minister, which means that I am licensed by the Church to take the eucharist or mass or communion or Lord’s supper, by whatever name one may choose, to shut-ins and the sick. Ruthe is both, being wheelchair and house-bound by a progressive and degenerative illness. How I got lucky enough or blessed enough to be assigned to her is beyond me. I only know she has become my soul-mate in the faith and my prayer partner and friend. And each year, on Ash Wednesday, we celebrate together, over the eucharist wine and bread, our amazement that once more we are to walk through Lent together.
This morning or at lunch or this evening, Christians all over the world will go to their church buildings and sit among their fellow-congregants and say the words of the ancient prayers and then receive the mark of the cross written in ashes on their foreheads. Ruthe can’t do that, and I won’t. Instead, in just a little while, I will go to her house, my eucharist kit in hand, and I will spread the communion vessels and gifts there on a small table she has reserved for that use. Before I get there, however…and just about now, I suspect…Ruthe will have rolled herself over to the fireplace and begin our service even before I arrive.
Every year, on Palm Sunday, I carry home with me a palm cross or two, taking them to Ruthe on the following Wednesday. She saves them back in a special place, saves them against this day. She’ll take them with her today as she rolls to her fireplace; and she’ll burn them there. The cross triumphant is gone for these next almost seven weeks, the ashes of its loss becoming the visible signs of our sorrow. This afternoon, when I arrive, the burnt remains of last year’s glory will be in a tiny bowl on our small altar, waiting there for us. And we will say the prayers together and I will read the ancient scriptures foretelling this. Then Ruthe will take the little bowl, and we will lay upon each other’s foreheads the mark of our faith. After that, we will celebrate the mass, and I will go quietly home. There will be nothing left to say. It has begun again, this measuring of our years.