Last year, I wrote about picking my son up from the nursery after our church’s Ash Wednesday service. I was ripe with pregnancy. And not in the good way. I was ripe in the “my due date is in two days” way. I wobbled, waddled and winced (in that order) while I made my way down the aisle to get the markings of the cross on my head.
My husband had a work thing that night. So I had packed August into the stroller and he and I had walked the five dark blocks to our church in San Francisco. I stood in the balcony, watching files of people moving toward the ashes. I knew that most of them were entering into a 40 day regeneration, a time of preparation for the celebration of Easter. And I knew that I was entering into a new life, a life of mothering two people. I was going to learn the secret of how one woman can hold two children and love them both with the same fierce burning. And I wasn’t giving anything up for Lent–thankyouverymuch–except for my sleep.
After my pastor marked my head, spoke my name: “Micha, remember that you are dust and to dust you will return,” I walked down stairs to the child care room. My son was there playing with friends. He ran across the room to me, his smile slowly shifting into a look of concern. “Mommy, what’s on your head?” he said.
I told him. I told him about the ashes, that they remind me how I need Jesus, how Jesus loves me. Then we were in the stroller in the cool air, walking past alleys and the porch where the homeless guy with the grocery cart always stayed. I held my pepper spray close by while we moved our way home. Then through the heavy wrought iron door, then into the lobby and up the stairs and finally to our apartment. August sat on the bench beside our door and I knelt my front-heavy body onto the floor to reach his feet. Our eyes looked at each other. August reached up to my forehead and ran his thumb along my black mark. He made the same mark on me that I’ve made on his forehead hundreds of times before at his bedtime. The secret physical blessing I touch him with, down and across: the cross. He looked at my face again, his thumb dingy with ash. He said, “You’re beautiful, Mama.”
Yesterday, my pastor, Cliff Warner, spoke from Mark 9, the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, a word from the Greek that actually means “metamorphosis.” Jesus became Glory, right before the eyes of his disciples. Do you know what happened at the end of Mark 8, six days before Jesus allowed his disciples to experience that full display of his Godness? He foretold his death and resurrection. He pulled the crowd in close to him so they could hear his words: “If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (verse 35).
As we enter into Lent this week, hear the words of my pastor. “The call to take up our cross must be accompanied by the splendor and the majesty of Jesus,” he said yesterday. That’s why these two passages are together. If we go into Lent demanding sacrifice of ourselves but lacking any vision of Christ’s beauty, we miss the miracle. We are just black ashes on an oily forehead. The power of Lent is in the grace poured out. We offer the Lord these forty days because we believe God loves us. We believe that when we let go of control, we will see more clearly the movement and the beauty of Jesus.
“Lent sacrifice must be accompanied by majesty,” Cliff said.
And last year I stood in the dimly lit hallway at 8 pm with my then two-year-old, who saw the mark of death on my face and called me beautiful. And that is what Lent is, my friend. It is the sacrifice, the cross in our skin. But it is always greater than what we offer. What we offer becomes magnified in the light of the God who reflects the sun in our presence, who is making the sad become untrue, who is taking our broken souls and rebuilding them into the people we were always meant to be.
Sacrifice and Majesty are sisters in the story of Jesus: Brokenness and Grace. Ashes and Beauty. The very pregnant and the newly born.