A few years ago Bishop Swain honored me with a request to become the pastor of Saint Mary parish
in Aberdeen. While I was sad to be leaving Pierre, I was excited about the challenges and opportunities a new parish affords.
However, unlike any of my other transfers, this one brought me home.
I was born and raised in Aberdeen, and so I occasionally have a small flashback to my youth as I make my way through town or simply go through the day. A few weeks ago I had one of those moments. The city of Aberdeen, and the northeast portion of South Dakota, was hit by two blizzards in January, and after helping dig out around the church, I made my way to the house in which I was raised to help dig out my parents.
My brother ran the snow blower and I shoveled. After I finished up my part and was walking down the cleared sidewalk to the side door, I stopped and wondered how many times I had shoveled this sidewalk since I first started to do so as a grade school student. I had no idea, but I could easily remember the feel of it, the memories as deep as the snow piles bordering the street.
The snow seemed deeper then, when I was younger. I know I was shorter then, but still, I know it was deeper. I remember one year, after a particularly bad storm, I was shoveling the front walk and it took forever. I had to use the snow shovel to shear away long sheets from the drift before scooping them up and heaving them over the top of the drift to the right.
It took forever, and when I was done, I laid down on the sidewalk, the snow rising like canyon walls on either side. I lay there, my gloved hand sliding up and down the snow walls, enjoying the majesty of it, this grand canyon of snow, there was just a sliver of cold blue sky beyond the vaulting snow walls.
There are moments of accomplishment that touch a boy’s heart, and this was one of those moments. The vivid memory of getting up and walking through the hard carved tunnel as I made my way to the garage to hang up the shovel and head inside for warmth, stopping and looking back at the beautiful path carved into the drifts, side to side, end to end.
This was a part of my childhood, shoveling the same walk year after year, blizzards and flurries, until I knew exactly when to lift the shovel so it did not hit the cracks or uneven pavement as I slid the shovel along.
Today I am 57 years old and shoveling the same walk again. I am taller now, of course, older and the snow does not seem as deep. I do not complain about having to do it as much as I did before, mostly just a little now. The cracks have been repaired and some of the pavement replaced, so I have to learn the feel of the walk all over again; but it was the same, and utterly different.
And a few days ago, we stood and processed forward, like we did when we were kids, and someone ground ashes into our foreheads and told us a truth we could barely comprehend when we were kids. We do it every year, and have for as long as we can remember.
Kids receive the ashes and the words and give up their pop and candy for 40 days and it is, for them, an adventure and a challenge, and this is a gift and a joy to us all; this is how it should be for them.
Hopefully they have not had the experiences of death that make the words more real, making them a stark reminder of how brief our time is in this life. Hopefully they have not had the experiences of loss reminding us that every parting might be for the last time.
We older folks have had those experiences, and hopefully we have allowed them to teach us in such a way that the ashes and the words and the days that follow become something more than just a time to give up a few joys for a few days. We have had the experiences, and with them our Lenten days can become something more.
We can allow them to be days when we reacquaint ourselves with our own lives, and who we love and who loves us, and why. Perhaps we will find the courage to tell them again, and show them again, and to learn to let go of the fear that keeps us from being ourselves and to let go of the hurts of the past that make us want to hide.
We are older now, perhaps wiser, and led by God, who is “ever ancient, ever new,” into this gift of Lent so we can learn all over again. The events of the past change us, and Lent gives us the space to make sense of it all.
The rituals are the same, as are the words, but we are utterly different; Lent is never the same.