We did not get ashes on Ash Wednesday last year. Late in the evening a few days after our three-year-old daughter’s heart surgery, I realized what day it was. We would not make it to the parish in time to receive ashes, I told my wife. With pitch-perfect insight, she turned to me. “Babe,” she said, “we’ve been wearing ashes for a month.”
I do not feel guilty about it. We couldn’t pull it off. Our heads were somewhere else: the hospital, doctors, medications, five weeks of appointments, medical testing, sleepless nights and nightmares when we did doze. Yet there we were on Ash Wednesday with an excellent prognosis for our little girl. The prior Friday, she’d had successful surgery by a caring medical team, a pediatrician and cardiologist, and she was doing fine—better than we were. Grace was not yet in the clear, but she was out of the woods.
Ash Wednesday felt more like Easter.
That’s the mystery. I have always been fascinated by the liturgical paradox of Lent and Easter. As an altar boy years ago, I helped set up for the triduum and served at all the liturgies, so I got into the rhythm of Lent. Yet even then it seemed like play-acting. We mournfully get ashes on a cold winter Wednesday, knowing how the story turns out. Even if the calendar and weather don’t agree, we already know that Easter comes, bringing a springtime of eternal life.
Reflecting on decades of Lents and last year’s blurry Ash Wednesday, I wonder about something that dogged me all last year: trust. Lent is ostensibly a question of trust that all will be well. But what merit is there in pretending to trust when we know, from the very beginning on Ash Wednesday, that Easter Sunday is the end of the story?
I got a glimpse of the real thing last year, a month before Ash Wednesday, when our daughter was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. A 15-minute check of a heart murmur turned into three hours of utter fear that we had to mask while our little girl squirmed through an extensive ultrasound and other tests. When you don’t know how something terrifying will turn out, that’s when trust comes in.
Heavily influenced by the Jesuits, I knew that the way to pray was to say, “Take, Lord, receive.” At that moment, it was fear, anger and despair, rather than faith, hope or trust. It is hard enough to put ourselves in God’s hands, but easy compared with giving over someone you love into God’s hands, which is how I looked at the hands of our daughter’s doctors and nurses. St. Ignatius Loyola came to mind, but so did St. Teresa of ávila. I always loved her candid remark after she was thrown off her horse and landed in the mud: “If this is how you treat your friends,” she told God, “no wonder you have so few.”
I wondered: Where is God in all this; or more basically, How is God in all this? I felt like Abraham or Mary, who had to hand over their sons Isaac and Jesus. Mary had made a commitment more than 30 years before to be the mother of Jesus, wherever that path led, and surely Abraham also felt that he had trusted God this far, so he had to keep going. Still, I took comfort in identifying with them. Even though Abraham and Mary knew they had to hand their sons over, I’ll bet they still wondered what God could be thinking. They did not know how their sacrifices would turn out.
But we didn’t have a choice. Our daughter needed heart surgery. We could not pray her condition away. Maybe there was no merit in handing her over, but there might be spiritual growth in hoping and praying, which is all we could do. For me, it was not a matter of trust—it was a matter of faith. I didn’t trust that all would be well.
Handing my daughter over reminded me that faith and trust are not about us. Handing over is about God, about God’s plan for each of us, about serving God in everyone around us. It is about St. Peter not understanding why Jesus had to wash his feet but somehow knowing he had to do it. It is about all the healing themes we hear in Lent. One Monday about halfway through these 40 days, we heard how Elisha healed Naaman the leper. A week later, a royal official with a sick son will implore Jesus to save his boy. Jesus responds, I imagine with a tsk-tsk in his voice, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” The royal official pulls no punches with Jesus, demanding without a pause: “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
I read this story last year, a few weeks after Grace’s surgery, and immediately identified with this royal official who spoke so boldly to Jesus. Grace’s surgeon, an hour before the procedure, assured us that everything would be fine. All I could think, toward him and toward God, was that it had better be.
Approaching this Lent, I think about surrender. On Good Friday, Jesus will say, “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.” Jesus had faith and trust in his Father’s plan. Do we have faith and trust every day? I don’t. I try to have faith, and I am growing into that trust.