(Having given up YouTube and Hulu for Lent, I find myself with more time and thoughts than usual, so while I acknowledge the rambling nature of this post, I make no apologies. Perhaps someone will find it challenging and encouraging.)
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day that (amidst an already poignant Lenten season), inevitably brings with it self-reflection and a challenge to the narcissism and egoism to which I let myself fall subject most, if not all, of the time. When approached thoughtfully, receiving ashes and being told to remember that “you are dust, and to dust you will return” does little for one’s self-confidence, as I already suffer from my fair share of self-inflicted insignificance. Case in point: there's not much interesting literature or art that includes the name "Nicole," and I admit that I'm petty and shallow enough to resent that. There are the classic names, enduring and prominently featured in all the great works and stories of recent Western history, but "Nicole" has somewhat less of an interesting repertoire. Don’t we all cry out for a place in life's grand context? My plain name seems to serve as a crutch for such thinking.
How does this piece of dust respond? My dear friend Madeleine L’Engle would say it has something to do with being named, that I never was meant to be significant in and of myself, that it is only in the eyes of God that I was ever supposed to mean something. Intrinsic to my place within Creation is a unique name, and though I question and fight, it is this simple fact that informs my being. She describes the power of naming so perfectly in “A Wind in the Door” when she says “I name you. I fill you with Naming. Be! Be, butterfly and behemoth, be galaxy and grasshopper, star and sparrow. You matter, you are. Be! Sing with us, dance with us, rejoice with us, for the glory of creation, seagulls and seraphim, angle worms and angel host, chrysanthemum and cherubim. Be! Sing for the glory of the living and the loving the flaming of creation. Sing with us. Dance with us. Be with us. Be!”
C.S. Lewis closes “The Last Battle,” the final chronicle of Narnia, with a journey into a new and restored Narnia, and once again we hear of a voice, a voice more powerful, frightening and exciting than any other: a Namer. Blown in the winds of sin to a new world without such failings, the story’s travelers find themselves in a place eerily similar to the Narnia they’ve just left, the Narnia to which they were told they could never return. Uncle Digory, witness to Narnia’s birth, reflects that “…when Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here…and of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.”
And so the practice of receiving ashes becomes a reminder that this world is but a shadow, a promise of that to which I will return to what is real and what is holy. Called but for a moment out of sinful winds, God has given me a name, a gift of grace even on the long road to the Crucifixion, and if I've been named, then the appropriate response is one of joy, of love, of being, of great expectation and great anticipation. So I take cues from the stars, and rejoice in being named by my great God: I, Nicole, named and grateful, sing for the glory of the living and the loving, the flaming of creation. Though I am but a shadow and dust at best, glorious Easter is ever in view, and my head is caught between hanging low in deserved shame and glancing upwards in joyful hope. So further up and further in I journey, invited and called, this named piece of dust ever moving toward something real. Peace this Lenten season.