When I was five, I played the cello for the first time in a music festival. Music festival is a strong word for the experience I had. Yes, there were lots of players and pieces and judges and carrying music stands on and off stages. But as far as I was concerned, there were only two people in the room. Me. And an absolutely minuscule human being named Michael. Who was younger and cuter and better. So as much as my mom told me to “have a great time, sweet. What a learning experience!” I looked her square in her deeply sincere eyes and said, “No thank you. I want to win.”
It seemed to the logic of my five-year-old mind that winning was better than losing. It’s what we strive for, and, hey, it’s fun! What sense would it make for an Olympic team to be happy with last place?
We are entering a season in the church calendar called Lent, forty days where we are reminded that God is on the losing team. For many Christians, Lent is a time to temporarily abandon vices, try new spiritual practices, or give up Chick-fil-a milkshakes. (Lent conveniently corresponds with Spring Break diet season in anticipation of beach vacation. Praise the Lord). Many of my friends give up alcohol, or promise to pray more. In the height of my sickness, I took up swearing for Lent.
And I was dedicated. Every minor nuisance elicited strings of oaths worthy of any 1940s cartoon sailor. For forty days, I was more South Park than Southern Living.
To be honest, I was mad. I was exhausted by being in a world that seemed to like me better when I was healthy and wholesome and whole. It felt like I had fallen behind, somehow.
After all, who wants to root for the losing team?
As Christians, we choose to love a God who died. A God who rises, yes – but a God we spend forty days mucking around in the unpleasant weight of a life condemned. Lent makes us fit in our ability to be alive. By attending to God’s death, we know better how to live.
On Ash Wednesday, the sign of the cross is traced on our foreheads by hands which have, on other days, fed us the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. We are confronted again by our own finitude: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Those ashes are made from the palm branches waved by the church children singing their hosannas last Easter. They hold the hidden DNA of a story that was more about life than about death. What is smeared on our foreheads is a symbol of a profound reality, that Jesus riding into Jerusalem to the cross is the beginning of the end of all sad endings. It is the sign of the God who is for us. The Creator has begun to trace again the history of the lavish banquet all prepared. The feast is ready, the table set. Love says, come home where you belong. You are welcome here.
That’s why even a day meant to reflect on our limits and mortality is good news.
Humans are such transient and fragile beings, so unnecessary to the functioning of the universe. Our very presence is precarious. We will search in vain for any guarantees of our continued health, future success, or, even, the promise of tomorrow.
Fortunately, we have a God who loves us and, for some divine mystery, values our presence. A God who walks among us. A God who willingly joined the losers.
This Lenten Season, I invite you to love the people on life’s losing team. Part of our job as humans is to link arms with people we love and stare down the abyss together.