I had fifteen minutes to spare, so I bought a flaky almond pastry-pretzel from the bakery and then walked 100m up the small street so that I could stand in the sunshine. The pavements were all white from the salt the city has been throwing down each night to stop us from sliding to and from work. I had to take off my gloves to eat the pretzel and my fingers were stiff with cold but I could feel the warmth of the sunshine heating me through my thick coat and it felt good.
I was early for mass because someone had told me it was always busy, but then there were only two others in this big church and I wasn’t sure what to do. All the chairs were turned facing backward and I didn’t know whether to turn one round, or kneel, or sit facing the organ at the back. So I hovered at the book stand instead and pretended to be absorbed in a Lenten reader.
Until Rasmus was beside me and others had started filing in and we just copied them and turned the chairs around. And I tried to follow the service on the laminated card until I realised that he wasn’t following that one this morning, and then I realised that I knew nearly every word anyway.
Lift up your hearts, he called.
And without me even thinking I heard myself, We lift them to the Lord.
Some memories we hold deeply ingrained in our bodies.
And we clasped hands with stranger neighbours, and Peace be with you, peace be with you.
We joined the file of people moving at a surprisingly quick pace up the aisle to the front, and then I found myself in front of a teenage girl, looking so proud and awkward to have been chosen for this role, and she smudged the ashes onto my forehead – Turn from sin and believe – and then she giggled and I smiled.
It’s a distinctly awkward feeling walking through a mostly-unpractising city with a dark smudge across your forehead. I was stared at, whispered about. Rasmus laughed. He’d rubbed his right off. We bought baguettes and sat in the office kitchen with espressos, and two of his colleagues, passing through, asked what had happened to me? No, I’m not hurt, not bruised. Just marked.
We walked the twenty minutes into town this morning, the sky already pink and the whole walk bathed in rosy light. And it made me happy, realising that a month ago we walked this path in darkness, missing the light, longing for spring. And now it’s really on it’s way. The snow may be falling heavily this evening again but last time it melted I saw new buds bursting through the hard ground and I knew.
Winter does not last forever.
As the priest ended the service with the benediction, he smiled over us and said, May you have a joyful lent. And it sounded weird at first. Lent joyful? Surely this is the time of ashes and sackcloth, of mourning, of fasting and repenting? Joy?
And then it suddenly felt right. I’m seeking joy this year. I’m wanting more of it in my life, more of it in the lives of others. And I remember this verse I discovered recently, when Paul declares that he is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”. Somehow joy can exist alongside sorrow. And so why not also seek joy these forty days.
Wishing you a joyful lent, my friends.
Want to read more? Here’s last year’s post on Ash Wednesday and preparing for Lent.