Thursday, March 01, 2007

Ash Wednesday by AnneGG

Dear AnneGG,

Thanks for letting me post this. I am awed by this work.


Ash Wednesday

Yesterday was Fat Tuesday. At work this afternoon, we all sat around eating leftover fastnachts instead of fasting. “Hey, how come lent is forty days long?” “I think because Jesus fasted forty days in the desert.” We Protestants aren’t big into lent. Fastnachts are like jelly doughnuts with no jelly, just thick clumps of dough deep fried in animal fat. You shall present as an offering by fire to the Lord the fat that covers the entrails . . . I’m thinking of giving up jelly doughnuts for lent.

If you are offering a goat, you shall bring it before the Lord and lay your hand on its head; it shall be slaughtered in the tent of meeting. While Alicia and I were walking today, we saw a dead deer beside the train tracks. At first we couldn’t tell what it was; the flesh was rotted away, leaving only hide and bone, and we could peer into its lungless ribcage. Alicia waited patiently with her back turned as I stared, both repelled and transfixed by the dead carcass. I went a step closer, sniffing the air on purpose for the rancid odor of decay. From dust you came, and to dust you shall return. As we walked back along the tracks, we saw some of its fur lying in clumps, and somebody’s old shoe, and a pair of railroad spikes. Alicia picked up the spikes and commented dryly that she didn’t like how the Old Testament had so many commandments that required slaughtering things. I nodded. I’m thinking of giving up meat for lent.

In fact, maybe I’ll start eating fish every Friday. If I were Catholic, I would attend mass today. I would kneel with the other contrite congregants at the altar, in the dim, smoky light filtering in through stained glass windows, the sickly-sweet odor of incense burning in my nostrils. A priest would daub a cross of ash onto my forehead and pronounce sacred words in muttered Latin: “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” On the same walk, Alicia and I discovered a dead skunk, not yet really rotting, but lying stiff on its back. Its legs stuck straight up into the air, and blood trickled from its mouth. For without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins. I wonder if animals go to hell.

Like Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.” Hell, the burning lake of fire. Hell, separation from God. Hell, eternal death. Their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur . . . I’m thinking about giving up hell for lent. Hell is separation -- Ben and I are not on speaking terms these days. His last message is still saved on my answering machine, from the day before we ended it all: “I’m trying. But things always get so hard with us. If you want to play football, we’re meeting at four.” Too close, never close enough – isn’t that the human condition? This is the second death. I’m thinking of giving up breathing for lent.

“Hey, how come lent is forty days long?” “It used to be only a week, just the week of the Passion.” The red, saturated ribcage of a deer. A goat. A lamb. You shall bring it before the Lord, and it shall be slaughtered in the tent of meeting. For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son . . . Alicia says when she hears the train’s whistle, she knows it is God saying, “I love you.” I wonder if, when the train made contact, that deer had the same thought as Jesus had when God turned his eyes away from the bloody suffering: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” Death is separation.

Every time they gather together, Catholics participate in the Eucharist. This is my body, broken for you. When the congregation takes the bread and wine, they say that it actually becomes the blood and body of Christ, and Christ becomes part of the participant. Part of their sinews and bones and connective tissue. Part of the force that sustains their life. This is my blood, poured out for the remission of sins. We Protestants don’t believe in transubstantiation. Anne Lamott writes about strewing her best friend’s ashes over the water near the Golden Gate Bridge, about how the ashes stuck to her clothes and hair and fingers. “I licked my friend’s ashes off my hand, to taste them, to taste her, to taste what was left after all that was clean and alive had been consumed.” Anne Lamott must be Catholic.

During lent, a participant may either forgo something or take something up. (Jesus, for example, took up a cross and a pair of railroad spikes.) I’m thinking of taking up transubstantiation. For even we Protestants crave that kind of union with other people, with God. Too close, never close enough – Isn’t that the human condition? And if death is separation, then life is union. During his darkest days, Ben used to pick pieces of my long hair off of my clothes and eat them. “The closest to heaven I’ll ever be,” he’d say. But really he was just trying to thwart death.
O Jesus, you place on my forehead the sign of my sister Death: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” God help me, Ben, I miss you so much I can hardly breathe. I miss your smell, tiny particles of you snuffed into my body through my nostrils, becoming part of me just like the rotting stench of the deer. Like the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday, the body and blood, “that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish.”

Later, Alicia and I saw from a distance a pair of live deer, frolicking in the woods. “They look happy,” Alicia said. I nodded. I’m thinking of taking up immortality for lent.

Copyright 2001 Deborah Harbin All Rights Reserved

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