I don’t travel to new places very often; I love being at home. A couple weeks ago I broke the mold and traveled to southern California to spend time with my sister, and we spent a Saturday at Disneyland. The day was a happy whirl of rides, lines, ice cream, and warm sunshine, but around 3:30 that afternoon, when the park was at its most busy and we couldn’t walk without bumping into someone, I began to feel the effects of the crowds. As a child, I might have pitched a fit. But as such tantrums are not tolerated with adults (however much we might want to), I agreed with my sister that a half hour break in the car would be good for both of us. I recognized unmistakable symptoms of being overtired, irritable, and, in this new environment with so many unknown faces, a little fragile, too.
The next day, my sister and I visited my grandma who had recently suffered a minor stroke. My sister and I helped her from her wheelchair to the hospital bed, and she lay there helplessly, unable to use her arms to prop herself up on the bed. My sister and the nurse hoisted her up, and we stood over her, looking down. She grabbed our hands, hers still surprisingly firm and strong, and said to us, “I’m sorry you have to see me at my worst.” I smiled at her and squeezed her hand, but my insides wrinkled uncomfortably as I recalled the day before, overwhelmed in the happiest place on earth, ready to burst into tears like a petulant child. My grandma’s worst didn’t seem that much different than my worst.
Two weeks later, I sat in the Ash Wednesday service at church and listened to the words of invitation to the observance of Lent:
“Friends in Christ, every year at the time of the Christian Passover, we celebrate our redemption through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Lent is a time to prepare for this celebration and to renew our life in the paschal mystery. We begin our journey to Easter with the sign of ashes. This ancient sign speaks of the frailty and uncertainty of human life and marks the penitence of this community.”
As the sign of the cross was marked on my forehead with ashes, I was struck by the troubling paradox in the words of invitation, new life and frailty in the same breath. It’s like Lent itself, a season marked by penitence and fasting, which is puzzlingly placed at the time of year when the created world is bursting into new life. The grass becomes green again, the trees straighten towards the light, and flowers emerge from the cold ground.
I realized as I felt the ash on my forehead that my grandma and I both represented the paradox of Lent. My grandma, whose earthly body is failing, is headed for the new life that awaits us in heaven, where the earthly wear and tear fades away forever. While still young and healthy, I have my own frailty in wrestling with the sin and brokenness that are inherent to human life. And yet, the promise of new life still extends to me in the culmination of Lent, that glorious triumph of the cross of Christ. I like Disneyland and all, but surely living in the light of new life, even with the shadow of death, is the happiest place on earth.