The minister makes two quick swipes of his finger across my forehead and I hear the first somber words of Lent, a reminder of the crushing cost of the Fall. I am mortal I’m told destined to become the same dust from which I came, though I hardly need the reminder. The previous year had done that in abundance.
I was home, though far from the place I now call my home. There is a comfort in the familiar woodwork and smell of the old German parish called Emanuel, but the comfort is fleeting. I look for a familiar face and see none. Those I knew here have gone on to other parishes and a few are no longer “here” at all. No I needed no reminder of our fleeting time on earth.
The imposition was done in the old familiar way, kneeling and with no sense of hurry. Once the service was ended, there was no recessional as is the custom in Lent. There were no Alleluias either, though it did not yet occur to me I would not hear the word again for some time. I walk out into the cold Ohio night with a fresh snow on the ground and go off to see my father.
The drive to see him is a brief one as he is but a few miles from the parish. The visit too was brief. And all of this is a reminder our time on Earth is brief. The Preacher is right I think; “all is a vanity.” We chase after all too fleeting things in an all too brief life. We say we are a people of good news, but where is the good news? What good news can Lenten people have?
Far away, though not too far away, in Chicago, the children of another Immanuel have packed away their Alleluias in a box. They made these with crayons each in his or her own writing on separate sheets of paper. This was their proclamation and they had strung it over the ceiling of the sanctuary, but now their words have come down and like me, their foreheads have been covered in ash to remind even these littlest disciples of the inevitability of the end of life. Where is the good news in this?
However, there is good news. The snow coating the ground of Marion Ohio promises to be brief and everyday there is a minute more sunlight. We are Lenten people and we leave our sanctuaries with no songs, though it does not mean there is not a song to sing, even if we are not permitted to sing it now. And this too is the way of life. We know too much the ways of disease and warfare, hunger and hurt. But these things are like the snow of Ohio and the nightfall of winter. The snow melts and the night recedes and all that gives us harm and even death itself leads us not to lose hope for we know death will be swallowed up by death and Lenten people will become an Easter people as assuredly as our brief time here becomes time eternal.