I love the fine adornments of Christianity. Or of the way I choose to practice my Christianity.
Perhaps that isn’t something I should admit to.
Perhaps you would think more of me if I said that I were above all that.
But if you have seen the satisfaction I take in the weight of a thurible in my hands, my childlike delight at the swirling rose petals of Corpus Christi, my joy in the rich music and trumpeting organs, my pleasure in the changing colours of the liturgical year, or even my penchant for getting Bishops to sit in fairy-light strewn thrones, you will know that I speak the truth.
“I don’t like Lent,” my mum said when I was a child (and again many times since I’ve been an adult). “I don’t like how the church is when it’s all stripped and there are no flowers.”
So you will know too that at least I come by it honestly.
Of my love for the sparkle, for the shine, for the holy razzmatazz of the way I choose to worship and all the ephemera that comes with it.
For ephemera is what it is.
The swirling incense will be lost in a scent memory, the rose petals will wilt and fade, the notes from the trumpeting organ will die away, the colours will change and change and change again, and the fairy lights… well, we all know what happens to fairy lights.
As all of that is lost to time and space, what is it that remains with us?
Lent is not a comfortable season for me. But is it a comfortable season for anyone? For is not Lent about looking down into our very bones, into our very souls, and learning whether we can live with what we see there when all the rest is stripped away? If the ephemera is gone, what have we got left?
Those do not strike me as questions that are supposed to be comfortable.
At dinner with some friends this week, the conversation turned to what we learn about ourselves we are forced through circumstance to live without all the fuss and the fancy of our usual daily lives. Two had just returned from a year working in East Africa, away from first-world preoccupations. Another spoke of a solitary walk she had been on, more than five hundred miles, separated for weeks from the privileges and the inconveniences of what we consider normality. In that conversation, there are memories of people the world over, of pilgrimages and of spiritual retreat and, yes, of Jesus Christ in the desert too.
If people talk of finding themselves, we tend to snort a bit. It’s all a bit New Age and buzz word and surely worthy of an eye roll or two. But is it not what we do? We go on these journeys, to the ends of the earth or simply to the depth of our own psyche. And we come back and we are never ever the same.
Lent is not a comfortable season, but Lent is when we find out who we are.
From the crumble of ash on a forehead to the touch of lips on the bare wood of a cross to the empty cavernous space that once was filled with light and life and laughter.
If we take away all the rest, who are we?
Who do we want to become?