Last week, Christians around the world observed the beginning of the journey of Lent by having ashes smeared on their foreheads or the back of their hands while hearing words similar to, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Over the years I’m sure more than a few people have found this perplexing and rather morbid – especially if Christians believe in abundant life and resurrection and the like.
Courtney and I were not marked by ashes last Wednesday, which was odd considering that we were in Ireland – an island steeped in centuries of Church tradition. We spent the day walking around the monastic ruins of Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains, about an hour south of Dublin. We passed through doorways of stone built around 625A.D., and we stood among the ruins of a cathedral that served as place of worship from 600A.D. to 1300A.D. We touched stones that have been stacked on each other for 1400 years. We wondered what the lives of the people were like back then – and what the lives of people have been like since then who have come to experience this place.
Grave markers spanning the centuries cover the land between the buildings – the oldest with their dates worn off just a stone’s throw from the freshly poured concrete and polished granite of recent additions. We wished we could have attended an Ash Wednesday service that day, however this year we didn’t need the ashes to remind us that our lives belong to a story richer, deeper, and longer than our brief life’s span. We reverently marveled at our surroundings, thankful that we belong to a story that is bigger than our lives – a story of God’s compassion and wild love for creation and the invitation for each of us to participate in God’s holy work of healing the world each and every day.
We were surprised, though, too at Glendalough.
As we strolled out towards the car park we took a final look to say good-bye, and we noticed something at a distance on the stone of the old cathedral that we didn’t see while standing directly next to it. Some of the stones, exposed to rain, had slight variations in their color pattern. It looked a bit like graffiti at first. Both of us did a double-take and asked simultaneously, “Does that say, ‘Joy?'” We stopped and stared. It didn’t appear quite as clear when we looked at it straight-on, but for us we saw joy scrawled on the wall in a brief glance – and that was enough. A reminder. The wall was marked by joy, and we smiled as we remembered that was how we wanted both our Lenten journey and the next steps in our journey to be – Marked by Joy.
We don’t know where God will open doors of opportunity in the months and years ahead, yet we want to choose to approach those steps with joy, remembering, thanksgiving, and maybe even a pint or two of Guinness.