Midweek Musing Ash Wednesday 2021
Sometimes it seems like we have been here before doesn’t it? I am not talking about Déjà vu though we have all experienced that. Instead, I am talking about the ebb and flow of life that we all experience. From Fall to Winter to Spring to Summer and back to Fall. Again and again year after year.
Leaves fall and we rake them into piles. We clean out the gutters. The trees are bare. Then small green buds lead to summer shade before nature’s life cycle starts it all over again.
We do the same thing in the church. We describe it as the liturgical calendar. We begin with Advent and go through Epiphany, and Lent, and Holy Week and so forth. And we do it year after year.
While most of us think of liturgy as simply the words we find in the bulletin each Sunday and say as part of the worship service; the truth is the word has a far greater meaning. The actual word liturgy is a combination of two Greek words that were combined and whose combination means “the work of the people.” The idea I believe is that for people of faith, all of our life is work and worship given to God.
Thus, we are called to work as disciples of Jesus Christ and do so week after week—year after year. We may (and should) find new and creative ways to do this work. However, the call is the same—every moment of every day—we are to love God and love one another. Be it in our in our worship, service, fellowship, or study, we are to love. Our methods may change, but our call to love God and others remains constant.
All that being said, I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that sometimes I wonder about the need for all of this repetition. I mean week after week, year after year. The same Bible stories. The same liturgical calendar and liturgical colors and even confessions and creeds. Season after season. Year after year. It sometimes seems like we have been here before. That we are simply doing the same things again and again.
And yet perhaps that is the point.
I started thinking about all of this after reading some words written by Rev. Sarah Are. She shared the following about growing up as a preacher’s kid. As a preacher’s kid (PK) myself I could relate to them, though I do not believe you need to be a PK for them to speak to you.
She writes, “I grew up in a family where church was not an option. We were there, every single week, rain or shine. Therefore, as you might have guessed, it was not long into adolescence when I asked the question, ‘Why do we have to go to church every siiiiiingle week?’ (Cue the dramatic eye roll.) My dad, with love, simply responded, ‘Because we are a forgetful people.’ For my parents, it was not enough that my brother and I heard that we were loved and were called to be love every once in a while. They needed us to hear that truth every single week, again and again, day in and day out, lest we forget. Fast forward several years, and that is now how I feel about Lent. I believe that we need the stories of Lent and the hope of Holy Week every single year, because there is something about ashes on foreheads, meals around tables, the darkness of the tomb, and the unstoppable hope of Easter that changes us. So once again, we walk this path together. And once again, God will meet us along the way. And once again, I am confident that we will be changed. Again and again, this world has known suffering, so again and again, we proclaim hope.”
Her claim that we need to hear the words of hope and love every week was so powerful for me to reflect on—especially when the last year has been so hard for us all. (I tried to come up with another way to describe the last year but hard is the best church appropriate term I could come up with.)
As I write this, the TV screen says that in the US alone 27 million people have been infected and at minimum 487,000 people have died from COVID-19. And regardless of age, or gender, or race, or income or any other category all of us have been significantly impacted by this pandemic.
Just think of it: 18 months ago no one had even heard of this virus. And even last Ash Wednesday, while we might have heard about this disease on the news and how it was impacting the Eastern Hemisphere, we were promised it was something that would not come to our shores and certainly would not impact us or our daily lives. Sadly, this was not the case.
As Rev. T. Denise Anderson, who served as Co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), reminds us that just last year on Ash Wednesday we “could touch, hug, or just be with each other without face masks and an imaginary tape measure.”
It seems since last Ash Wednesday we have experienced grief and mourning like few, if any of us, can remember. Covid 19 has taken loved ones from us without warning. And it has changed us and our world in ways we are still realizing. We have lost time with one another. We have missed events—big and small. We have all had moments when fear seemed so overwhelming. The pandemic has exposed the gaps in our economy, our health care system and redefined what we consider essential it—be it toilet paper, check-out clerks, or custodians. The COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered in the history books as a momentous world-changing event in which “normal” was changed forever.
Of course, we really are not even sure what that new normal might be. An example of this is the fact that as a congregation we are not even able to gather together and mark our lament by the imposition of ashes on this Ash Wednesday 2021.
And yet more than ever as individuals, a nation, and a world, we need to remember again and again that there is hope even in the midst of our mourning and grief.
Because after the conflict and discord and pain of the last year, it seems having ashes imposed on our forehead as a sign of lament and repentance and as a demonstration of our desire to transform our living together into a more perfect union and the beloved community seems appropriate, perhaps even necessary!
Rev. Anderson goes on to say these powerful words in one of her commentaries:
“I’m sure lament is easy to find today. There is also much we still need to turn around.
Collectively known as the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s anthology of Jesus’ teachings begins with the Beatitudes, a litany pronouncing blessings upon the unsung folks. The poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers— these are called “blessed.” Jesus shows himself here to be countercultural. The kind of religion he promoted wasn’t performative, as so much of religious life can be. We give because it is necessary. Prayer prioritizes God’s will, not our words. Fasting produces spiritual, not physical evidence. What we value is different.
There’s something poignant about this in a time when we cannot rely on most of the social norms we’ve used our whole lives. Even facial cues fail us because of the masks we must wear! Performative interactions with God and others will similarly fail us in these times. They simply won’t be enough. We must go deeper.
Again and again, God invites us into fuller ways of being. There is no better time to accept that invitation than now, when so much is different. Maybe no ashes mark our foreheads today, but they can still mark our hearts.”
Yes, it feels like we have been here before and that is good. For in coming to this place we once again experience the power of hope. Because it is true, we are a forgetful people, and need to hear season after season, week after week, again and again the truth of God’s grace and love which heals and transforms. Thanks be to God for such a continual gift.