I flipped the kitchen calendar to April this weekend, as a mix of snow and sleet swirled down outside the windows. This wasn’t quite the April Fool’s blizzard of 20 years ago, but it was still a proper nor’easter: more like February than April. Both Nature’s clock and my internal one seem to be off this year.
It’s been a month since Ash Wednesday, a month that has swung wildly between sunny days that coaxed the crocuses to lift up their faces to the blue sky, and freezing, bitter winds accompanied by snow, sleet and rain. I suppose we were all fooled by the mild days in late February. (I know I was.)
Lent is typically a hard season for me: I do not naturally dwell in darkness, and Lent asks us to look steadily at our human frailties, the flaws inherent in our nature that trip us up again and again. We begin, on Ash Wednesday, with the words that say it all in one sentence: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This year on Ash Wednesday, I sat with a handful of other Harvard folks in the boxy white pews of Memorial Church, listening to the prayers and readings, reciting the litany of confession. But I was thinking about two things, not (at first glance) related: a poem I’d heard that morning at the daily prayer service, and Lord Voldemort.
The poem, by Jan Richardson, is called “Blessing the Dust,” and Alanna read it aloud in her clear, ringing voice:
This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
At many churches, the dried palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service are burned to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday. The ashes are what is left after a fire: the scorched remains of what was once fresh and green. They mark us, smeared onto our foreheads by the finger of a minister or a loved one, along with those words I can’t forget: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Earlier this winter, I reread the Harry Potter series, again. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve turned back to this story, diving joyfully into the world of Hogwarts and relishing Harry’s adventures with Ron and Hermione. I read them, this time around, with a friend who loves them as much as I do, which was the most fun I’ve had reading anything in a very long time.
On Ash Wednesday, my thoughts turned back to Voldemort, and how the insistent reminder of Lent – that we are dust – is the very thing he worked so hard, all his life, to deny.
Voldemort – when he was still Tom Riddle, young and friendless – always yearned to believe he was special, set apart, somehow above the rules and limits placed on other people. When he learned about his magical ability, he began searching for a way to make himself immortal, which led him down a dark and dangerous path. He always had a deep and unusual fear of death, and this obsession led him to experiment with Horcruxes: splitting his soul into multiple pieces, killing again and again, trying any means he could find to achieve a semblance of immortality. His followers – never friends – were called Death Eaters; his quest to find Harry, and kill him, was born out of the terror of his own mortality. Voldemort never believed Dumbledore’s assertion that the limits of our humanity can also be a gift.
Magic in the Harry Potter universe (which bears some resemblance to faith in our own world) provides no guarantee of immortality. Many witches and wizards live long lives, but some of them – like Dumbledore, Harry’s parents and eventually Harry himself – end up placing their lives at risk, even giving them up, to defend those they love.
The walk Harry takes into the Forbidden Forest near the end of Deathly Hallows echoes Jesus’ journey to Calvary: the action of a man, gifted but mortal after all, intent on giving up his life for the sake of others. Voldemort, by contrast, hid behind his own twisted experiments and machinations until the very end. He never would have understood the words of Richardson’s poem: he would not have believed in “the blessing / that lives within / the ancient ashes.”
We are two weeks away from Easter: from the day when we emerge, blinking, into the brightness of the Garden on a Sunday morning, into the joy that has been winking at us, calling to us from around the corner. I love the Holy Week narrative and I know we need it all: the deep, utterly despairing dive into darkness, the mournful songs of Maundy Thursday and the howling grief of Good Friday. I know we need the suspension of Holy Saturday: the world holds its breath, waiting to see if the promise will be fulfilled.
I am ready for the joy of Easter Sunday: the blaze of light, the birdsong, the proclamation of the sentence carved on James and Lily Potter’s grave: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” But we are not quite there yet, and even when we get there, some of the old sorrow will still linger. The glory of Easter doesn’t negate the wounds of our humanity. It heals them, but it does not make them disappear.
So as I walk (carefully) down sidewalks still edged with melting snow, I am holding Richardson’s words close. I am thinking about our humanity, about the frail, soft, vulnerable parts of ourselves that Voldemort feared, but which give us (among other gifts) our ability to love. I am hopeful, as Richardson is, that I will see
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge