I remember when confetti was no longer allowed during weddings. The church cleaners would otherwise be logging in long hours trying to vacuum those little pieces of coloured paper out from the carpets in the sanctuary.
Those who grieved the passing of the confetti era have a point. Because confetti symbolizes something more than just a mess. When it is a mess with intention, it is a celebration of life.
We may not at first associate the ordinary, simple, mundane aspects of life as worthy of notice. Perhaps it is more a question of focus. Like with confetti – do we see the unbound joy of love in throwing bits of paper over the bride and groom; or, do we see in the confetti an egregious mess waiting to be cleaned up?
On Ash Wednesday, we have to deal with a bit of mess when getting some ash on our foreheads. Of course, this symbol draws our attention to our own mortality. Dust we are and to dust we shall return. We turn our attention thereby to the frailty and finitude of life. And this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Because death is the one inevitable of life.
But we must learn how to live with it. How can we think about death when may not know how to live?
In the same chapter from which we read the Ash Wednesday Gospel, Matthew records what Jesus says in the face of the mess of life and an uncertain future. He draws our attention to common, ordinary things. He turns our gaze towards flowers and fowl. Consider the lilies, they don’t sew or spin but are clothed magnificently. Consider the birds, they don’t plant or harvest, but are fed and cared for.
We might add: consider the confetti at a party. Or, consider the ash placed on your forehead. Frivolous, we might think. Unnecessary. We can do without.
And yet, we know that the measure of our days is rarely determined in the mind-boggling adventures some are fortunate enough to embark on. Rather, when we remember the lives of those we love it is often the small, simple ways they went about the world that live on in our memories.
The focus our God calls us to is life. The purpose of Lent is life, and our journey towards life abundant which will necessarily involve some loss, some pain. But then, what is the focus? What will our God have us see?
Mangrove trees are normally fresh-water plants, I read. But they are now found living in a tidal river flowing into the Coral Sea in North Queensland in Australia, a body of water which is salt water. How have they survived? How have they lived?
“In the service of survival, they have developed an elaborate root system that filters out much of the salt contained in the river water before it can kill the tree. When excessive salt still threatened the life of these trees, they somehow devised a means to guide the salt to particular leaves, which then turned orange and fell off the branches. These came to be called the ‘sacrificial leaves.’ They died that the tree might live.”
Jesus announced his purpose and mission on earth when he told his disciples that he came so that we might “have life, and have it abundantly.”A momentary affliction of loss has not the final word. “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The message of Ash Wednesday is inherently a positive message of hope, a call to persevere, and a challenge to risk losing in the sure promise of finding something better on the other side. We cannot bypass the way of the cross. But we go on this journey now assured that life, and life abundant, for us await. That is the focus and the aim. It is about life.
In the small, ordinary, sometimes frivolous acts, in the common, daily experiences of living. “How do we live?” ought to be the focus question during Lent.
Be intentional and pay attention enough to ask the cashier how they are doing, when the lines in the grocery store are long.
To relish in deep breaths when the air is finally warm enough outside it no longer freezes our lungs on the way in.
To say ‘yes’ to more snuggles and one more hug when our children request them.
To say ‘yes’ to resting and taking space when our bodies tell us that’s what we need.
In full view of death, we walk a path on which we show up to life. Trusting that the small things matter, or at least that their frivolity is not completely in vain. And we shall live, living in ways that will attract life and give life to the world.
Thank you to Megan Westra for her thoughtful and moving blog for Ash Wedesday (“Confetti Wednesday” at https://mailchi.mp/d6a0d42b1af8/confetti-wednesday?e=8e6a7196da)
John Shelby Spong, Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2018), p.87
1 Corinthians 15:54-55