For this Southerner, getting to see snow is always a treat. I love waking up and looking out my window to see gentle flurries being swept across my view. There is something absolutely magical about fresh-fallen snow. But once thing I’d always been told (and never truly believed) is that after a while, snow turns black. I figured “Yeah okay, maybe that’s true…but then more white snow falls and makes it all better. So I don’t know what the fuss is about.” Well, I’m here to tell you that unfortunately, probably the most disappointing part about living in a place where it snows is the fact that snow is not always white and sparkly.
The big problem is that especially in a big city where people walk places, the snow that falls on the sidewalks gets stepped on. All of the dirt that clings to our shoes gets dragged through the snow, and the heat given off by people (and by the friction of walking) sort of melts the snow into a mush. So you end up with this gross brown slush stuff that you still have to walk through. And to top it off, snow is wet. I mean, I knew that snow is frozen rain drops, but it doesn’t really feel that wet to the touch so it didn’t matter to me. But when the cute little white snowflakes get stuck to your coat and caught in your hair and in your boots, and then you walk inside and they all melt, you’re left looking like you just walked through the rain. Which you did. So seeing umbrellas up while it’s snowing is actually quite common, and even I too have stopped trying to catch snowflakes and thinking how cute it is to have little snowflakes all over my coat. It’s not cute anymore.
But it does make me think. Today is Ash Wednesday, a day when many Christians mark their foreheads with a smear of black ashes which are supposed to be symbolic of our humanness, sin, and death, but also of hope, repentance, and rebirth. All my life I’ve been in a Catholic school, living on the edge of the Bible belt, and I can probably count on one hand the number of times anyone has ever said, “You know, you’ve got something on your forehead…” It’s not uncommon to see people with ashes back home, and even if someone isn’t receiving ashes they generally still know what it means. But here, today, for the first time I felt a bit anxious about receiving ashes. I’m living in what Father Tim referred to as a “Godless society” and I honestly had no idea how others might react. What do I say? How do I express my faith in a loving way without seeming self righteous about this symbol on my forehead? If we’re talking about an everyday encounter—with the person next to me on a bus, or in the line for dinner—then I would probably only have 30 seconds or less to give an explanation. Because in all honesty, they probably don’t care.
Yesterday when I was making/serving pancakes, I had a very interesting encounter with one man. He didn’t come looking for pancakes. He came looking for answers. “What are you celebrating?” he asked. “What does it mean?” He came from an atheist family, and the only religious people he knew were his neighbors who are Muslim. He told us that he knew about the fast of Ramadan, but he didn’t know Christians had the same thing. So we all sort of explained what Lent is and what it means, both historically and in the present times. We gave examples of things we had given up and why. I told him that it doesn’t have to be a physical fast where you abstain from food, but rather it is a spiritual fast where you offer up something of yourself, something in your life that needs to be improved. It’s a sacrifice. It doesn’t even have to be “giving something up,” but it could be a sacrifice to take something on like volunteering.
What touched me most was his reaction. He asked if he could participate and give something up as well. It was such a beautifully simple response, and with so many of us putting our two cents in I don’t even know if he completely understood what we were saying. Yet you could tell he was searching for something. Anything. Something to hold onto. He wanted something more in life. He wanted to understand the sacrifice.
That’s what Lent is about. It’s about desiring that “something more.” It’s about giving up something earthly or doing something for others that will help you re-center your life on Christ. Lent is that moment where you look at the black snow on your sidewalk and realize that you don’t want to drag life’s dirt through the snow. You remember the beautiful white snow you once saw, and you know that what you’re looking at really isn’t good anymore. It’s full of dirt. The only thing you can do is clear it all away; let the rains come and wash it out into the streets where it can be swept away through the storm drains. Only then will you be ready for a new snowfall to make the world beautiful again. Because I haven’t got a problem with snow—there are few people who will deny that it’s beautiful—it’s the dirty snow that I can’t stand. It’s the black snow, not the white stuff, which ruins the experience.
So let God be your rain this Lent. Because here in Manchester, whenever it snows rain is never far behind.