Illustration: Patrimonio Designs Ltd.
A Season of tears and ashes — a promise for all aching hearts
This reflection first appeared in the March issue of the Anglican Journal
After a while, the thread of truth, the rhythm of life and death, the visceral loneliness—after a while they are impossible to ignore. Standing, kneeling, the liturgy of ashes gets personal, as the sign of our origin and our end smears the foreheads of the faithful: “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
Every year, I have been mindful of the one or two death has taken away from us, from me, from the life of this world. The faces of those who are past reminding, no longer beside or among us. In their absence, in that emptiness, we encounter the lonely truth of our mortality, of our losses and endings, of the commonwealth of tears.
Those tears could fill a font. So in our baptism we plunge into them, plunge into that font of tears, into the place where, as Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn sings, “Everyone gets the chance to be…nothing.” Down into the water we go for dying, for drowning in the apparently endless capacity of this world to generate death. Clinton, Elspeth, Hanna, Donald, Anne, Susan, David, Jeffrey, John, Catherine, Sid, Rody, Bill, Liz, Pamela, Kathy, Bob, Elizabeth…Each of them died between one Ash Wednesday and the next, and their deaths gave us tears to fill a font. And if those tears were not enough, there are the tears of children—crying through their first night in the residential schools, crying as their parents succumb to AIDS, crying with hunger. Ample tears.
And ashes, mountains of ashes, of death, of pain and oblivion visited on children and old people, and everyone in between. Syria, Sudan, Bangladesh, Congo. The bonescapes of mass murder and the nameless dead. Between any Ash Wednesday and the next, the world offers ample new ashes to smear across our faces.
Lent, season of tears and ashes, time to take heed of what happens between one Ash Wednesday and the next, to what happens in any year, has happened in all the years that God has given and we creatures have spent. Lent, our season of humility, of undefended mute helplessness against the tears and ashes of yet another year. Season in the life of Jesus, too, who meets us in tears and ashes—the costliest ever and most generous kindness. Jesus, whose death completes the promise he made in baptism, to plunge into the font of tears and meet us in its silence.
With Jesus in that silence we begin to hear first faint notes of an approaching promise. A promise for Clinton, Elspeth, Hanna, Donald, Anne, Susan, David, Jeffrey, John, Catherine, Sid, Rody, Bill, Liz, Pamela, Kathy, Bob, Elizabeth. For Syria, Sudan, Bangladesh, Congo. A promise for all the aching hearts who long for something other than tears and ashes. A promise made in the Jordan and kept at Golgotha, to meet us, to wipe away every tear, to give a garland instead of ashes, to lead us to creation’s homecoming and our own.
THE VEN. DR. MICHAEL THOMPSON is general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada.