The Ring Goes South
And so it begins: at last, we set out upon our great pilgrimage. Long have been our preparations. In the company of others of similar mind and purpose, we leave the comforts of the Shire and the peace of Rivendell. Like Boromir, we choose not to depart on our journey as a thief in the night. With ashes upon our foreheads, remnants of our past repurposed, we let forth a blow of our spiritual horn.
Yet immediately, as with the Fellowship, we stumble. We may wonder whether we tarried too long in safety and have set out upon this quest too late. We may walk through lonely and desolate lands, the chill seeping through our garments. We may warily keep watch for the spies of the Enemy, for the signs of those things that would tempt us or dissuade us from continuing the path. We may seek to cross the mountains that stand in our way, but the mountains may defeat us.
Slow might be our progress, and though we have in mind our ultimate objective we, like Gandalf, might not know exactly how we shall reach it. However, little auspicious signs of grace abound to encourage us. The Fellowship is composed of nine to stand again the Nine of the Enemy. The attributes of the Fellowship are not mere strength alone, or even courage, but also friendship and loyalty: as Gimli contends with Elrond, “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens”. The shards of Narsil have been reforged: out of the north comes Andúril, Flame of the West. And perhaps most subtle of all, the date of Frodo’s departure in the midst of winter: it is the 25th of December.
With ashes upon our foreheads, we mark ourselves as members of this Fellowship. No oath is laid upon us to go further than we will, but as Elrond has suggested, “the further you go, the less easy will it be to withdraw.” The more this Lent we spend in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the more challenging our pilgrimage will become. The longer we spend walking with Christ this Lent, the more difficult it will be to depart from His side. The great risk of Christian discipleship is ultimately not confrontation with evil, but engagement with the Good. For in the footsteps of Christ we shall travel to lands we never could have imagined, discover powers we never could have believed, and suffer hardships we never could have endured before. One does not simply walk into Mordor: but with Christ, into it one walks all the same.
And so, with ashes upon our foreheads, we commence the true beginning of Lent. Though eventually we shall brush or wash off these physical cinders, their spiritual imprint is indelible. It burns brightly as the Sword of Elendil; it proclaims loudly as the Horn of Gondor. Though we stumble and face setbacks, though we may not know the full way forward, these ashes draw our attention to the small hints of grace around us, which by history and light show in whose company we travel.