Today’s the day that everyone lists what they gave up for Lent (I’m taking on time for lectio divina and giving up going to bed after 1am), but , for me, the more moving sacrifice happened this weekend, on the last Sunday in Ordinary Time.
I changed my mind about Christianity the night before Palm Sunday last year, so I’ve never experienced Ash Wednesday as a believer before. The first Mass I went to as a Christian was the jubilant Palm Sunday, the welcoming of Christ into Jerusalem and the beginning of Holy Week. I went to church, recieved a blessing and a palm, and got on a train that took me away from New Haven and the only three people in the world who knew I wasn’t an atheist anymore.
It’s traditional to weave the palms distributed at church into crosses or other holy symbols, and to put them up in your house. Although I was a bit jittery, I made sure to keep my palm cross safe on the whole journey home — by Amtrak and metro — and hung it up in a corner of my room, wondering when I would tell my housemates what had happened.
The ashes that are distributed on Ash Wednesday are made by burning the palms that are blessed and distributed the previous year. So, I took my cross off the wall and brought it back to my parish church, for the last service I would attend there before the move. When I handed my palm back to the deacon, and told him why it has sentimental value, he looked concerned. “You don’t have to return it. They can be burnt or they can be kept; either is allowed.”
But I wanted to give it back. Perhaps it was the influence of the recent readings from Daily Mass from the book of Samuel where Hannah prays desperately for a son, and then, when he is born, gives him up as a priest; returning to God what she has been given.
She reminded me of Kierkegaard’s description of the Knight of Faith in Fear and Trembling. I don’t think I quite understood Kierkergaard or his mouthpieces, but his image of the paradoxical Knight of Faith was arresting. I can’t help but picture a knight in full armor and toe shoes who makes some kind of terrifying leap of faith and, in the words of Douglas Adams, misses the ground. He remains suspended, somewhat precariously, but sustained and altered by his faith.
Lent isn’t a time of suffering for the sake of suffering. It’s a choice to be discomfited and pass through a crucible so that we can be transfigured. Last year, at the turning of the liturgical year, I was given a gift. When I return it, I’m not casting it off, but relaxing my grasp so that it, like me, can “suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange.”