I woke up sick as a dog on Ash Wednesday.
Shaky and achey, I went back and forth between shivering and sweating, curled in a miserable ball on my clammy sheets. My head throbbed, my mouth tasted like asphalt, and my throat was parched. It was unpleasant.
I was heartbroken that I missed the Ash Wednesday chapel service at work. However, my body tends to fight off sickness pretty quickly, so I was well enough to attend Ash Wednesday service that night at my own church. “Thank goodness,” I thought. “Now it’ll really feel like lent has begun.”
Don’t get me wrong, it was lovely. We sang songs and said prayers and I left with an ash cross on my forehead. But it didn’t really feel like Ash Wednesday. My church, which I began attending several months ago when I moved to Chicago, prefers a pretty contemporary worship style. Most of the time, I love it. But for lent, I wanted something different.
Tonight was Holden Evening Prayer.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a Holden evening prayer service, but my word, if it isn’t the most beautiful thing inside the four walls of a church. The music is beautiful, the words are beautiful, the simple ritual is beautiful. I can’t even explain why I love it, but I do. And it resonated more with me tonight than it ever has before.
A few months ago, the Magnificat of Mary was sung to me by a woman I very much admire. Listening to her sing, I was floored. Mary came alive in this woman, became a real flesh-and-blood person who had swollen ankles and morning sickness and carried the messiah. She became so real to me, more than just a character. Advent itself became so real, and I spent the remaining weeks leading up to Christmas with a new and amazing sense of longing. Which, as they say, is what Advent is all about. Finally, it was real.
I didn’t go to church much (or at all) in college, so I hadn’t heard the Holden evening prayer in a number of years. When I heard it tonight, it was like everything came back. The reverent evening services, the candles, my mother’s voice leading the call-and-response part of the evening, the congregation’s single voice responding, the way the music made me feel. I didn’t understand at the time that I was feeling God’s presence.
Now I do.
I felt it tonight. I felt it in the people around me, in my two friends who led service, in the beautiful, simple music of the Holden evening prayer.
Come and light our hearts anew.
Let my prayer rise up like incense before you.
God of mercy, hold us in love.
It stops my heart.
The calendar Ash Wednesday didn’t feel like much to me.
Today, my real Ash Wednesday, felt like everything.