Nearly two weeks ago, I walked across campus through the snow to the Ash Wednesday service at Memorial Church. It was brief: a couple of readings, the litany of repentance, and a slow procession up to the front to have our foreheads smeared with ash.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the minister said as he made the sign of the cross on my head. Then, softly, he added, “Glory be to God.”
We ended with a hymn I’d never heard before: “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days.” The title of this post comes from the end of the first verse: “Teach us with thee to mourn our sins, and close by thee to stay.”
I didn’t grow up observing Lent, but I’ve experimented with it on and off over the past decade, giving up chocolate or candy, or making an effort to add something in, like a reading or a practice of prayer. I decided this year, after eight feet of snow in three weeks, that giving anything (else) up would make me crazy. Getting through this winter, and reaching Easter, will be sacrifice and reward enough.
Since Ash Wednesday, that hymn has been playing in the back of my mind, its melody keeping me company, as the Magnificat did in December. Two lines have particularly struck me: the one quoted above, and this one at the end of the fourth verse: “Yea, evermore in life and death, Jesus, with us abide.”
Some years, for me, Lent has been about sacrifice: giving something up to see if I could, or because my church community was trying out this ancient but new-to-us practice. Some years, it has been about denial: wanting to skip over the whole dark season and rush forward to Easter and spring.
This year, I keep thinking about those two lines, and I have realized: this Lent, for me, is about abiding.
Lindsey noted last summer on her blog that marriage is about abiding, about remaining near. Several months later, she added that friendship is made of attention. I agree in both cases, and sometimes I also think this is the entire point of the spiritual life: to keep drawing near to God, to pay attention, to keep asking God to abide with us in our messy, walking-around lives.
My favorite hymns these days are the quiet ones, the ones that sidle up to God and ask him to draw near, because this world is dark and complicated and heavy and we can’t move through it on our own. There is a place for the unbridled joy of the praise songs I loved as a college student, but the phrases I keep returning to now are softer, gentler: Abide with me. Come, thou fount of every blessing. Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.
I still find Lent difficult: it is hard for me to look steadily at the darkness of this world, at least without flinching or wanting to run away. I’m already longing for Passion Week, where the darkness grows even darker for a while before the glory of Easter breaks in. I am ready to be there already, to step into the story of Jesus when I know the daylight is around the corner, when the pain and suffering will be worth it because they will finally make sense.
But we’re not there yet. We are here, in the middle of Lent, and the middle of winter (at least here in New England). We have four more weeks to Palm Sunday, five weeks until Easter, who knows how long until spring.
We are here. And it is our job to remain here, to live in this in-between place, and to keep praying the words of the hymn I’m growing to love: Yea, evermore, in life and death, Jesus, with us abide.