Dirty Hands

Lent is an amazing time, when the Church has the opportunity to engage in a season of sensuality.  Not in the sexual sense that so often is attached to that word these days, but in terms of involving the senses.  While the Protestant Reformation may have restored sound theology in Christian congregations, in many cases (increasingly so in modern times) it gave up the rites and rituals that engaged people’s senses.  These were deemed ‘popish’ or ‘Romish’ and discarded, leaving us with worship environments that appealed primarily to the eyes and ears.  Even the Sacrament of Holy Communion has fallen prey to this in recent years, as emphasis has shifted to convenience rather than actual taste, and people deal with tasteless and unappealing pre-stamped wafers instead of actual bread that you might actually want to eat.

But Lent is kind of an exception to this – perhaps more so for pastors than for others.  I notice the sensual nature of the season in terms of my hands and how dirty they get.

Ash Wednesday brings the acrid smoke of burning palms, and the sickly sweet smell of myrr or frankincense or nard.  My fingers are blackened and sweetened with this mixture as I create it, and then as I apply it to the foreheads of parishioners.  That smell and the blackness takes days to fully dissipate.

Palm Sunday comes and my hands and arms are nicked, bleeding slightly from last minute palm-cutting in the front yard of the church.  Finding the saws to quickly hack off a few palm fronds small enough for the children to carry in, where they will join the larger palm branches that others have already contributed to the sanctuary.  Quickly hacking off the dangerously sharp barbs that line each side of the palm so that small hands and fingers aren’t pierced and scratched.  And there is the smell of palm tree flesh as well.

Maunday Thursday comes and my hands smell like marinated lamb, or the sweetness of haroset, or are floured with the dough to bake the unleavened bread.

Good Friday arrives and my hands are smeared with sap.  When I arrived at this congregation I found an old cross in the corner that had been made years ago out of the trunk of a large Christmas tree.  It became a featured prop of my Good Friday Tenebrae service setup.  It’s heavy as I lug it out of the chapel corner and lay it half tilted across the front of the altar area, and it still bleeds sap each year that clings to my palms and fingertips.  Then I take the large palm branches that had been propped against the sanctuary walls on Palm Sunday, and I snap them in half, scattering them around the altar and narthex and front porch.

Tonight we’ll conduct our first Easter Vigil service, and my hands will smell like firewood and smoke from getting the bonfire going that we will gather around at the start of the evening.  There will be the smell of smoke and sulphur rising into the sky as people slowly assemble, curious and uncertain about what is happening and what to expect, must like the first disciples might have gathered at the tomb that first Holy Saturday.

My hands have been sticky and smeared and smudged and smokey and scented over the course if these past seven weeks.  A reminder of the life of the Church that reflects upon the life of our Savior 2000 years ago.  I am grateful for the marks and scents on my hands, and it will be sad to see them go for another year, until it’s time to pull out the palm branch that I stashed in my office closet yesterday and begin burning it to ash.  I am grateful for traditions in the Church that involve not just my mind, not just my ears, but my nose and hands and mouth.  All of my senses utilized as I receive the gifts of the Son of God who has redeemed all of me.

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