The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned...
~ Matthew 4:16
The alarm went off just a little after 6 am this morning, and I sat up, letting my feet dangle momentarily before taking those first steps this morning. It was still dark in the bedroom, but yet, I could make out the shadow of one of our dogs, as he realized I was getting up, which meant that he would soon be heading to the back door of our home, where he will begin to jump with excitement as my hand reaches for the door knob.
I follow both of our dogs out the door, and go to the corner of the house where I have stored palm branches that I will set fire to, in order to prepare ashes. Branches that were once green, now are brown in color, and I begin to journey in my mind as I take them into my hand.
How green were the palms as they were raised in joyful exclamations of "Hallelujah" when Jesus entered the city?
I begin to tear them into smaller pieces as I prepare to burn them. It is a stark reminder that the season of "Hallelujahs" is soon nothing more than a sound byte that has been replaced by some breaking news headline, or something that I have chosen to be more important.
I stop and realize that I have begun my own Lenten journey. I light the palms in the small planter that I have chosen to use, and flames suddenly burst forth, scorching the sides, and turning the silver a darker color. The only sound I hear is that of a siren on the highway just beyond our neighborhood. My eyes remain focused on the flames, while my mind turns to the driver of the emergency vehicle and I wonder about the one who needs help.
The flames subside as quickly as they burst forth in those initial moments, and I watch as embers become dark, and the fire dies out. My spirit watches, and I tell myself, "From ashes you were created, Todd, and to ashes you shall return."
On this Ash Wednesday I will remind others of these words, and the journey that we are all on together, but yet, individually as well.
I am reminded that there is no "wrong" or "right way" to experience Lent. It is a season that arrives before we are ready, just like so many other seasons of our life. It is the stark reminder that death itself, waits, and watches, just I did as I watched palm branches that were once green, waving in the summer sun, that now have turned brown and have become the ashes that others will wear, as I remind them, "From ashes you were created, and ashes you shall return."
As I write this morning, I have once again discovered the words that I have struggled over the past few months to share. My Lenten journey this year is about my attempt to return to, "Me." Having struggled with my body as medications forced it to return to a baseline that it is no longer capable of achieving, my journey looks and feels very different this year. If anything that living in a pandemic has taught us, is that life is filled with moments of uncertainty. That life changes without warning, and the promise of tomorrow only exists on a calendar, printed months before the moment that we currently are living.
I gather the ashes and add a little olive oil to them, along with a few drops of frankincense, as a reminder that there were once Magi who followed a star in the heavens in search of the ONE that we are all seeking now.
My fingers become stained as I check the consistency, and I finish my morning routine. My mind turns to the busy schedule I ahead, as I travel to a number of homes where hospice patients and their families wait for the ashes they requested, followed by stops at nursing facilities where I have patients, along with those who work there, will invite me to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and hear the words that will become my mantra for this day.
The day will end with a gathering at the church that I serve in Galveston, where members of Westminster Presbyterian, as well as others, will come as well for the ashes that were once green palms, waving in the sun, turned to ashes that have traveled throughout the countryside to all my visits, and now will become the symbolic reminder that one day, the dirt that once became mud, fashioned by a God into an image that was reflective of the Creator, with a breath of life that is sacred, will once again return to the earth from where it came.
I begin this final paragraph, realizing that I have once again discovered "Me" and that I am not afraid of the ashes that stain my hands. They are who I am, and that the ONE who created me, will never forsake me. That is where I find myself this Ash Wednesday...
Stay in God's grip!
G. Todd Williams (c) 2021
Rev. G. Todd Williams is the author of the book, "Remember Me When..." and is a former hospice chaplain and pastor.