Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day this year. The last time this happened was 73 years ago. It’s a wicked, beautiful bit of coincidence that the day for celebrating love and romance should align just so with the day for ushering in a season of repentance and self-denial.
My pastor had a splendid idea. She decreed that the theme of our congregation’s Lenten season would be love, specifically “God is Love.” At this year’s Ash Wednesday service, before we received the sign of ashes on our foreheads, we were first handed a single red rose.
“Remember you are loved, and created in God’s image” went the blessing, as a stem was placed in my hand.
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” went the blessing, as a mixture of oil and the burnt ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday palms were smudged onto my forehead. Shaped with two lines, a cross.
I walked back toward my seat. But before I reached it, a kind woman grabbed my arm. She handed me a sleeve of cellophane to keep my rose fresh. Another splendid idea.
The only problem was that I wasn’t the only one to receive a rose, an ashen cross, and a cellophane sleeve. Everyone else in the room did too. So instead of the subtle cadence of whispered blessings and shuffled feet and gently played piano music, the sound I heard most dominantly was the swishing, smushing, unsettling sound of roses being dropped into cellophane.
I pride myself on being a rough and tough country girl, the sort who will eat bugs for a dare and still climbs trees. I’m ashamed to admit that I do have some special adult sensitivities. Things that make me cringe. Like overhead lights at nighttime, or the bubbly tang of carbonated beverages, or one sock that has significantly less elasticity than the other. Apparently, I am also deeply disturbed by the un-rhythmic staccato of floral wrappings.
I closed my eyes and tried to meditate anyway. I focused on my breath and the piano.
That’s when the piano music faded into oblivion. I looked around, finally located our pianist. Apparently he wanted to be blessed with roses, ashes and cellophane insanity too, because he was standing in line.
I closed my eyes again. There was no use. I began searching my mind for a blessing of thin crinkly plastic. Is there a section for that in the Book of Common Prayer?
I strained my ears, trying to pick out something, anything, besides that which scratched at my brain’s receptors. But it was like trying to drive when your toddler is scream-whining in the backseat. You cannot un-hear it. There is no peace.
As I sat there listening hard, straining for relief, another sound suddenly caught my attention. A low hum. Someone behind me began humming a bar from a hymn.
Normally I wouldn’t adore the sound of spontaneous nasal vibration, but the measures of this particular song caught me. I breathed in the humming, drank it up like chilled spring water. Who was humming? Who cared. It was lovely.
Then, another hum. Someone joined in. Then another, and another. Soon, the absence of piano playing was replenished with the melody of 40 people humming their hearts out.
And for me at least, the sound of humming folded and wrapped over the cacophony of the cellophane, hushing it out of the spotlight, like soothing a screaming child back to sleep.
A thought occurred to me. If I hadn’t had my ears pricked up by the sound of something that agitated me, I might have missed the moment when that first hum was cast out into the atmosphere. If I hadn’t been paying attention, I wouldn’t have known that it all began with one voice, one brave soul daring to step out from the crowd.
That’s what agitation does sometimes. It strangles us out of our status quo comfort. It spurns in us a desire for something fresh, something beautiful and true. Something significantly better than what we are enduring.
If I hadn’t been annoyed, I would have thought the evening’s spontaneous burst of music was someone’s splendid plan, rather than a wicked, beautiful bit of coincidence.
I would have missed the blessing altogether.
Courtney Christine, a Greenville University graduate (2004), is a Chicago-based writer who has regular dance parties with her two daughters and urges them to be brave, strong and kind. When she’s not playing ukulele badly or cooking up supper for a hundred neighborhood kids, she plays a mean game of Ultimate Frisbee and wears her bruises proudly. Find more of her writing on Medium.