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Palms & Ashes: What a Time for a Holy Week

It’s Holy Week 2020, and I think we can all agree this has been an especially Lenty season of Lent.

When I was a kid growing up in my big, Catholic family, Lent was something that set us apart. It began with having to explain to my friends why I had a black smear of ashes on my forehead. Then, it was a steady procession of opting for fish on Fridays in the school cafeteria as a means of weekly fasting from meat, and of course, the obligatory giving up something dear for forty days–usually chocolate or gum because what kid is interested in actual painful, long-term self-denial?

For much of my adult life I walked away from the liturgical season of Lent. It represented rigidity and rules in a practice only “high church” people adhered to.

What a year 2020 has been, though.

Ash Wednesday fell on February 26, when cases of COVID-19 in the United States had barely reached double digits and churches openly held services, priests and pastors boldly marking participants with ashes from palms burnt the previous year. Corona was a distant storm gathering strength on the horizon.

2020, for so many of us, has brought us to the foot of the cross. You might say we’ve been given 20/20 perspective or vision.

This spring, for the season of Lent, I committed to a forty-day word fast. Nothing so austere as a complete vow of silence, but almost as challenging: being mindful and censoring words of complaint, judgement, grumbling, or criticism. Perfect timing for mind-blowing news reports, crushing anxiety, and a houseful of bored family members.

Turns out words were only a drop in the Sacrifice Ocean.

A pandemic has brought Lent, unbidden, to our doorsteps. The forty-day period before Easter is meant to remind us of sacrifice and suffering, to place on our tongues a small, bitter taste of going without and denying self. Lent suggests that we, in the smallest of ways, mirror the path Jesus took, the one that began with His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of Him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!’ “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:8-9, NIV). 

Could they have misread the situation more? As the hooves of the donkey that carried Him crunched atop the palm-strewn road, Jesus was headed not toward the powerful kingship they expected but towards an unimagined sacrifice.

In the span of a week, the world would turn upside-down, power would be reversed, and suffering, what most of us seek to avoid at all costs, would hold all the meaning in the world.

Who are we in that palm-waving crowd?

  • The faithful disciples, thinking we know what’s what, sure of the ministry of the Teacher, who casually healed two blind men on his way into the city?
  • Celebrants, happy for a diversion, the latest talk of the town capturing our fickle attention?
  • The donkey, doing our ordinary job on an ordinary day, oblivious of Who travels our same path, heedless that we, too, will be called to take up a cross and follow?

A few days pass on what becomes Holy Week. Dinner is served, Passover celebrated, and shifty-eyed Judas makes his move. The rest unfolds in a contradictory tumble–camaraderie and betrayal, pacifism and violence, innocence and guilt. Then, the worst:

“From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land…the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split” (Matthew 27:45,51 NIV). 

All was lost. Or so they thought.

So much sacrifice this season of Lent, so much giving up. We see how paltry our offerings of chocolate, wine, or screen time actually were. They lay on the altar in small measures, nowhere close to first fruits. We didn’t realize–until we did–what sacrifice and denial actually meant, what it could cost.

Forced to forfeit school, jobs, human contact, health, and life itself, our vision clears.

We have 2020 vision now. Sacrifice and suffering, once more, have been brought near and given flesh. We’ve seen the nurses and doctors, faces bruised from masks. We’ve watched elderly residences ravaged by disease, and those we love lonely and afraid. Too many are gone too soon.

The season of Lent lasts forty days to reflect the number of days Jesus spent in the desert in prayer and fasting, leaning all His weight on the Father. It’s likely our current season of going without will stretch longer than that. Even so.

Lent points beyond itself. It prepares us for a rejoicing that we could never have imagined.

The tomb was empty, after all. When the sun rose that first Easter morning, the world was redeemed, reset by love.

Beyond anxiety, beyond sacrifice, beyond even death, grace waits.

“Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18, NIV). 

On the other side, if we let it, we can carry with us the lessons: what falls away as chaff and what remains important, how a simple moment of joy can be a prayer in itself, how life is both beautiful and violent, fleeting and full of boredom.

Next year, if all goes well, once again we’ll bear the evidence of palms burned to ash on our foreheads.

We’ll carry the lessons from 2020 somewhere inside us, but because we are human, living in fickle bodies with feeble minds, we’ll always need reminders. We need spiritual disciplines and seasons of sacrifice, even small ones, to call us back and back and back to the foot of the cross, to walk through suffering to the amazing grace laid bare on the other side.

(For more from Bonnie, see Used with permission. 

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