It's the last day before the onset of Lent. As such, and as I'm living at home again, I'm eschewing pancakes and other pre-fast treats and instead returning to a less tasty but nonetheless rich tradition from my childhood: burning dried palm branches to make ashes that will be smudged on the foreheads of the pious during tomorrow's Ash Wednesday service.
The smell of the burning palm leaves takes me back to a smoky resource room at Westside Alliance Church in Regina, Saskatchewan, where I heard Mum say, "That smells like my youth!" by which she of course meant marijuana. A year or two later, when I was thirteen, I burned them again in that same room with my lifelong best friend as part of our baptism preparation classes. As I was being dunked into the community of Christ that Easter, while under the water in that comically huge baptismal tank I heard my other best friend (a new friend at the time), call out, "You go, girl!" and I thought how lucky I was to be surrounded by such great women--from those best friends, to my baptism sponsor who spoke in support of me, to the pastor who did the dunking--who saw through my shyness and insecurity and the obnoxiousness that spewed out of me when I tried to break free of those limitations and instead saw who I really was and could be, people who, despite all our differences, only ever spoke to me in love as an equal.
A dozen years later I spent my first of what would be three Lents in Jerusalem (and am tempted to say that the melancholy of the season is nowhere more inescapably magnetic). In those years I took multiple trips to the Quarantal Monastery near Jericho, which commemorates Christ's temptation in the wilderness after his baptism--the biblical story that's the source of the Lenten tradition. I twice walked up the Mount of Olives to join in the Palm Sunday procession, from which we collect the branches to burn into smudgeable ashes. I got ash-smudged in the Holy City and spent time in contemplation in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the spot where Christ was most likely crucified and buried. But never throughout all of this did I escape my significantly more mundane history. Never did I write over the memories that gave me my original Lenten self.
Speaking of which, this pre-Ash Wednesday smell of burning is always also the smell of campfires, which to me is the unfailing trigger for memories of Katepwa Baptist Kamp, a setting that taught me many spiritual lessons but none of them about Lent exactly (however, some of them about guilt and shame, and many of them about abstinence). I learned my first real lessons about mortality and grief there; KBK gave me the first person I lost, and my first of many experiences of grieving someone whom I felt I didn't really deserve to grieve--in this case a person I barely knew but whose kindness to me in a desperate moment had been my saving grace, an intervention, my much-needed picture of a truly human Jesus.
With the griefs of different kinds that have followed in the many years since then, I've come to see the beauty that can grow in the space of loss, but this doesn't make grief itself any easier to bear when it appears. Mortality is a tough pill to swallow even for those who anticipate heaven; earthly life is still finite, and heaven is still the unknown.
For me this last year was, in many ways, a year of loss and hurt and failure. I feel a bit silly naming all the things that left me feeling that way, but the attendant griefs persisted no matter how outwardly silly the circumstances. And yet, each unwelcome change for which I've grieved has eventually yielded gifts I never could have anticipated. And in more than one case a loss proved itself to be a rescue in disguise.
In Christian tradition Ash Wednesday has been an occasion for us to face our mortality, "for dust we are and to dust we shall return." But even this phrase that speaks to our insignificance, our fleeting lives, and the humbleness of our state of being should remind us simultaneously of our connection to the Divine, for it was the divine hand that shaped that dust to form us, and the divine breath that filled our new lungs with life rather than scattering our seemingly worthless ashy dust into nothingness. What is human will become dust, but so also will the dust be reborn into something that dust cannot imagine.
So here we are. Welcome to Lent.
Hannah Ayer is a writer and editor based in Calgary, Canada. At the moment, she’s finishing the thesis for her MA in Middle Eastern Cultures and Religions from Jerusalem University College, focusing on an identity reclamation movement taking place within the Aramean (Syriac) Christian minority in Israel. In her copious spare time she sings in the choir at the Anglican cathedral in Calgary and indulges her undying love of all things comedy. Having grown up alongside Nancy’s youngest daughter, she has always treasured Nancy Buschart as one of the motherly influences in her life.