Marking Mercy

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near— 
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come. …
Yet even now, says the LORD, 
return to me with all your heart, 
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;  
rend your hearts and not your clothing. 
Return to the LORD, your God, 
for he is gracious and merciful, 
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, 
and relents from punishing. 

Joel 2:1-2, 12-13; text for Ash Wednesday March 6, 2019

A season of uncertainty.  I read the news of the world, of the nation, of the church.  Of disarmament, of immigration, of investigation, of exclusion, of dissolution.  The lack of shared vision unsettles.  The weather itself conspires to contribute to the sense of confusing variation.  We’re a week into March by the calendar but a month back towards winter by the weather, experiencing a reprise of unseasonable cold, even snow.

Lent begins this week.  Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the days that take us to Easter.  My thumb dipped in oil, pressed into ashes, marking the sign of the cross on someone’s forehead.  The cross signed on my own forehead.  Dust you were and to dust you shall return.  The murmured reminder sounded to each.  Skin touching skin; grease and ash between.  So many foreheads, each unique.  All of them smudged with the souvenir of our shared mortality.  Incongruous.  Unifying.

One year, late home from the evening service, I looked in the mirror and saw above my tired eyes, a question mark smudged on my forehead.  The sooty cross had shifted shape.  Did it tell the uncertainty of a passing season?  Did it signal a deeper mystery?

We know our near-term destination.  At the end of Lent, comes Holy Week, the church’s re-living of Jesus’ death and resurrection, undertaken in anticipation of our own.  The days can be counted, the steps marked in time as if on a map.  But so much we do not know.  Who or what will we encounter along our way?  What or who will encounter us?   Who will we be when we encounter Easter?  And who when Easter — God’s Easter, not the church’s — encounters us?

Jesus taught his disciples to pray:  ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt 6:10).  Yet the prophet Joel makes plain that God’s kingdom does not wait on our will.  The day of the LORD comes when God wills, with trumpets and in gloom.  The mystery of the prayer, the mystery of the season, is not that God waits for our cue but that we are tuned to God’s design, that we may greet our Lord trembling not with the terror of righteous judgment but with the joy of reconciliation, the grace of reunion, the amazement of love overwhelming  

‘Yet even now,’ says the LORD.  Even as the trumpet is sounding.  Even as gloom looms dark, obscuring the way.   Yet even now, there is time, there is direction, there is the promise and presence of LORD who is ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’

Abounding in steadfast love.  For us.

That mystery persists.  That mystery abiding has the power to sustain even in this uncertain season.

Cross or question, may the ash-mark upon my forehead be a gateway to the journey.

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