How many pounds of pressure per square inch do you think a very strong masseuse can apply to your lats (muscles, upper back) when she is bearing down with all her might?
I don't know either but it occurred to me this afternoon to wonder. "Where do you carry your stress?" the masseuse always asks. "Not quite in my shoulders," I told her today. "But down a bit, my lats, and in my upper arms," I said, the muscles that are at constant alert for the signal to defend, to pop up and attack in self-defense. My back was being reconstructed from the inside out this afternoon during the best massage I've ever had ,
As I lay in a quiet room, a lovely mix of Goldberg Variations and cello concerti on the iPod, the scent of various herbal oils and lotions putting me at ease, a gentle breeze from the fan, the massage table itself warm and the blanket above me very soft, my neck set perfectly into place in the headrest, and the masseuse mauling my back in exactly the way I had hoped she would, it struck me.
This is not the normal way Christians spend Ash Wednesday.
No "ashes to ashes dust to dust" deprivation going on in there.
"Focus on your body," she told me. "Don't think about anything else, your work, your problems, driving in snow, the evils of the world. For this hour, focus on your body."
And I did.
My good body. No dust, no ashes.
Sparing the very brief interruption for the quick thought about Ash Wednesday.
I flashed to notice the contrast between the way I had chosen to spend this Ash Wednesday and the way I spent it for dozens of years. I'm at a spa. My daughter Kaia and I are enjoying a spa vacation.
Not a day for self-abnegation. Not a time for giving up, for subtracting, for being a worm.
But a day, rather, to gift myself with the knowledge that, in God's image, I am perfectly and graciously created. And God called it good. And inspired some people to tenderly care for it such that it feels even better. A day for healing. A day for being fully alive and claiming more freely the power of life and health and mortality.
I believe in sin, of course. And I believe I sin. And I believe that even if I get frozen like Norwegian Uncle Ned in a Tuff Shed up near Nederland, instead of buried or cremated, I'll still end up as dust. I'm not angel. No big prize.
But even while we take note of our limits, I propose we take a look at what links us to the divine. We are beings, we are mortal. We have been given a limited lifespan, true enough and that's what mortality normally means to us. But I contend that the gift is, we've been given mortality --- being! We are beautiously and wonderfully made. We've been given life and bodies, real bodies, that require attention and love now.
Sin is not about what we do wrong, perhaps, as much as it is what we fail to notice. We're here! We are embodied, enfleshed, as was God, in the image of God, so goes the story.
We are worthy of honor and respect and tenderness. Not just from others but first of all, from ourselves. I don't think it is possible to kneel and do the Ash Wednesday thing without first standing tall and claiming the glory of our mortality. And lying down on a table and be carefully attended to.
So, my respects to all of you who wear on your forehead today the sooty cross. I understand and respect what it is about. But my dust needed some tender care and some healing ministrations, a massage, a jacuzzi, perfect music, wonderful conversation, laughter, some excellent wine and a delicious dinner.
I know so much about sin and death. I am so privileged to learn more about life.