Visiting a nursing home is a good way to get in touch with your mortality. Each of the three parishes I have served has maintained a relationship with at least one such home, and that’s why I have been thinking, this Ash Wednesday, not about Lent, but about Christmas.
It was Christmas a few years ago, and it was also a Sunday we were scheduled to bring Eucharist to the residents of Parker at Stonegate. Heavy snow was predicted that day, and by the time our morning services at the church ended, it was falling thickly. I urged the organist to go home, as he lived about an hour north of the parish, but he was determined that the seniors should hear music on Christmas. And so we drove on the slippery roads and found ourselves in a packed room. It turned out that there had been an outbreak of some disease had quarantined the Parker Home, and we were the first worship team to get there in a month. When we walked in, there was jubilant applause.
They were all there: the sweet Lutheran woman who always helped the others; the dignified old man; the assorted people in their wheelchairs (including the Jewish woman who liked to worship with us); and (my heart sank) the angry woman with the fierce blue eyes who always disrupted our worship with loud complaints and then left in her white plastic walking cage.
But we passed out the songbooks and began with “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and I looked up and saw the woman with the fierce eyes come jogging toward us in her pink velour track suit and white plastic cage, down the center aisle between the wheelchairs. And I thought, ironically, here come the faithful, and then I saw her face. She was lit up from within; she was joyful and triumphant; and suddenly, the promises God had given us really were true, and it really was Christmas.
Lent is about transformation, about that kind of transformation. It’s about God’s love reaching out to even the most bitter and angry of us, reaching out when all we can say back is ugliness, reaching out when all we are willing to do is turn our back and walk away, reaching out when our bodies hurt and our will is feeble and even our names fall away, reaching out until we suddenly realize we are walking toward God, and not away.
Near the end of Marilynne Robinson’s book Lila, a woman who’s lived a hard life and come to a place of some imperfect peace sits and reflects and says, “There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, grace had to fall over them.” Grace has to fall over us, grace like new-falling snow, making us clean, washing us beautiful, smoothing all the tangles of our lives into something we can bear to look upon. Into something God can bear to look upon.
Because God does look. It’s we who are afraid to see what we are.