As a church worker and general faithful person I find that my life is often defined as much (if not more) by the church calendar than by the secular one. Church festivals are looked forward to as much as secular holidays and often it seems strange to celebrate one and not another (Halloween and All Saints for example).
Of all of the church seasons however one of my very favorites is Lent - a 6 week period of time to reflect and ponder the wonders of God's work in the world and our response to it. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday 40 days (not counting Sundays) before Easter. It concludes with Holy week and officially ends on Easter with the resurrection.
Lent is meant to be a time of spiritual discipline, reflection and meditation on the work of God in the world and in our own lives. The story of Holy Week brings this time to a powerful close with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which brings about the ultimate gift of grace for all people - the end of death's power in the world and the forgiveness of our sins.
Normally for Lent I try to give up something or take on a specific discipline to help keep me thoughtful during the season. But finding myself in the hospital 5 days before Ash Wednesday took this year's decision from my mind. Thanks to a friend I did receive ashes and communion on Ash Wednesday and was able to hear the words " You are dust and to dust you shall return."
The next day I went to surgery and delivered my son 7 weeks early by c-section. It was the only way to cure the pre-eclampsia that was threatening to shut down my own body. Five weeks later on the cusp of the most important week in church calendar I am thinking anew about this unexpected Lenten journey I have been given.
Firstly there is your own bodily recovery. Surgery and life-threatening diseases are hard on the body. My Lent began with a much more real understanding of pain and (though my doctors kept me and my son quite safe) the reality of death in the world. It also meant that my decision for what to give up for Lent this year was made for me: Control. For the last 5+ weeks I have not had control - my body did, the doctors, Edward's needs...these things were in charge. It was clear that I had no power to control my situation. If I had Edward would still be in utero, or at very least home from the hospital already. Though it was a stressful thing to give up my control over this situation I realized that it is only with God's help that we are able to lift up those things (terrifying as they can be) that our out of our control: An unexpected yet important Lenten lesson.
Normally my Lent is filled with worship services - Sundays and Wednesdays. Instead I've been to one service but my Lent is filled with trips to the NICU. This is my home, and work, and place of worship until my son comes home. But life in the NICU is strangely parallel to a lenten journey. It is hard and if you are being honest, it is not something you would ever choose. Everyday you look towards an escape from the humaness of it all. An escape from the fear of death to a new Easter morning.
And you fight with your demons during this time. There is guilt - did I cause this somehow? And bargaining - please let him come home soon? And joy - he is off is oxygen, or his feeding tube, or is over 6 lbs (can you believe it?). And hope - soon and very soon...
Above all there is prayer. You pray continuously for the health and wellbeing of the small (too small) child you brought into the world. But even in your own bubble of the NICU you find yourself praying outside the needs of you and your tiny family. You see the new admitants - more too small babies with chests gasping for air. You hear words whispered in the shadows between nurses...oxygen levels, infection, spinal tap, mengitis. You see the neonatalogists having to look up symptoms in their big book of baby maladies striving to diagnose another child's pain or fever. You hear the cries of hunger, the cries of pain, and the cries of a mother frustrated and scared with the whole situation. You see mom's wheeled in from surgery, bleary eyed - joyful and fearful at the same time. And you pray. You pray for those beginning their lenten journey. You pray that theirs can be shorter than your own. You pray continuously for the health and wellbeing of the small (too small) children brought into the world - your own included.
And you watch as time ticks along and progress is made. The Lenten journey of the NICU has no defnite time frame. Your Easter could come in two days, or weeks, or months. Ours is paralleling the church calendar and I hope that on personal Easter will be soon as the real Easter approaches, but above all you know that it is not in your control. So you seek to be disiplined - to grow in patience and hope and faith as you see signs of Easter coming towards you. And you wait for the day that you can say with the community around you "Jesus Christ is risen today! Alleluia!" "My Son comes home to me today! Alleluia!"
You wait on the hope that it is coming soon with the Alleluia waiting to burst from your lips in joy.