On the table at our Ash Wednesday service tonight, we will have both chocolate and ashes, which may well seem like competing images. One suggests indulgence; the other, death – not things we tend to put together. But there is a purpose in having these objects on our table and they come, in part, from the images in Isaiah 25:6-10. That scripture combines the image of feast and death, a reminder that God promises us an incredible feast even as God destroys the shroud of death that hangs over us all. That might be a theme for this Lent: the promise of God to provide, and to heal even death itself.
Here we are, at the beginning of Lent. For as long as I can remember, I have heard that it is a good spiritual discipline to give something up for Lent. As a teenager trying to manage her weight, I usually gave up chocolate, and delved into that Cadbury Crème Egg first thing on Easter morning. As I got older, the object to be given up changed. One year I gave up television; one year I gave up swearing. (I have since gone back to both.)
And then at some point I started hearing that it is good to add something, to do something, as a spiritual discipline during Lent. So I read a daily devotion; I prayed for someone I didn’t like (and realized that I had enough people to cover the whole of Lent.)
But for me, whether giving up something or adding something, I was always thinking about myself, and not about God or Christ. I would think about how hungry I was, or how noble I was in my sacrifice. It was about me, not about God, not about Jesus (who really knew hunger and really knew sacrifice.) So this year, for a lot of different reasons, I’m going to try a different kind of Lenten discipline, represented by the chocolate. What if this Lent,the discipline was each day to consider the sweetness of God. That could mean taking time to meditate each day on all that I’m grateful for; it might mean reading a psalm or something else from scripture that tells of God’s goodness to humanity. It could look like looking for signs of God at work in the world today, or plunging the depths of the morning paper for good news.
What if the Lenten discipline were to have one piece of chocolate – good chocolate – or one sweet thing a day. Limiting it to one piece a day can be hard. Then again, having one good piece of chocolate a day might seem too indulgent for this austere season of Lent. But what if, mid-afternoon or after dinner, I had one piece of chocolate, and really savored it, took time with it, tasted it freshly, noticed the hint of salt or chili or cinnamon that lies beneath. And what if, as I savor this chocolate, I remind myself of God’s good intention for my life and for the world? What if a piece of chocolate a day was my Lenten fast, my Lenten feast?
Because the ashes will always be there. There will always be reminders of death and decay. We are confronted with our mortality all the time, as our bodies grow weary, as we lose people, as violence pervades the world. The ashes are there, and we can’t run away from them, nor should we (if you’ll allow me a ‘should’.) We can’t deny them. But we don’t have to give them the only word, or the ultimate word.
So that’s why we have chocolate and ashes on the table tonight. To remember that even our mortality is surrounded by the love of God.