Today, February 22, 2012, is George Washington’s supposed actual birthday, but this year, it is also the day that Ash Wednesday falls upon. Most years, since I was a young girl, I would go to church to receive the imposition of ashes, which means that ashes of palms from the previous Palm Sunday were used by the celebrant to make the sign of a cross on my forehead if I chose to come forward in the service and receive them.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent– a penitential season in the church of fasting and prayer used to prepare for the feast day of Easter which will come 46 days from Ash Wednesday. It is a liturgical season of self-denial or service. Persons of faith will generally deny themselves of something or take on something new as a burden to carry like Jesus carrying his own cross. The length of time that Lent lasts [minus the feast days or Sundays] recalls Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert prior to beginning his ministry when he was tempted by Satan according to Gospel accounts and it also corresponds to the 40 days Moses spent in the wilderness. Up until last year, I thought the season of Lent lasted 40 days and so when I counted, because I wanted to know how many more days before I could bite the head off a chocolate bunny, I realized there were really more than 40 days, since the Sundays are feast days and are not included.
Ash Wednesday itself reminds us of our own mortality. In fact, at the imposition of ashes, the priest or celebrant will say “you are dust and to dust you will return” at the moment he or she makes the sign of the cross on your forehead. In year’s past, this meant little to me. I did not think on death much, it seemed foreign and far away. After my grandparents began dying in 1997 and continued to die for the next 3 years one by one, until I had only one left, I found death crept into my consciousness a bit more. When Kenney was killed in 2008, death became a new reality in my life, and I sort of graduated to a new awareness of the brevity of life and understood with a visceral intensity how short my sojourn could possibly be. By the time it arrives, whenever it arrives, I am sure I will feel that my life simply flew by as might we all. So, while a reminder of my own mortality is no longer a necessary thing, it is a sobering admonition to make it count.
Usually, I give up something for Lent. Last year, it was sugar and white flour. Once I got going into it, it seemed like a ridiculously long time to give something like that up and it was difficult. I did not observe the feast days last year, however, and this year I do plan to observe them if needed. I chose giving up these two things because they are so bad for me on so many levels and because I am so addicted to them and have seemingly so little self-control on a daily basis where they are concerned. I plan to make some prayers I have for a specific person a focal point for this season’s penitence so that I will be more likely to stay on course.
I have enjoyed my tour of the chocolate holidays leading up to this day: Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and I definitely made the most of them. In fact, knowing Lent was coming this year had me eating like I might be fattening up for slaughter. I was so saturated in King’s cake, pancakes, chocolate, and generally high carb food, that today was actually more of a welcome reprieve than an exercise in denial.
And so I am off to this place this evening, to remember that I am dust, and to dust I will return.