Watch the Sermon Here
Welcome to what is normally called Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, when we begin the season of renewal and penitence and turn once more toward the light of Easter. In a normal year we might come into this day with a particular set of feelings and a readiness for the new season. We would have spent weeks feasting at Christmas with family and friends, then renewed our disciplines and healthy habits with New Year’s resolutions. Then we would have settled back into ‘ordinary time’ during the season of Epiphany, with ordinary habits – and now as one of the first signs of spring, we’d re-up our disciplines yet again with a day of prayer, fasting, and self-denial, receiving a mark of ashes upon our foreheads with the words, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Normally that’s what we’d be doing. Remember ‘normal’? I’m beginning to think it’s a myth.
Instead, we may well have been feasting over the last several months, but maybe more in the vein of stress eating, comfort foods and butter to pad ourselves from the fear and anxiety all around us. And we didn’t do Christmas with friends and family, but alone, by ourselves or with only our households. New Year’s resolutions were a minor blip if they were anything at all, as we watched our screens in a mix of horror at national events, bleariness in Zoom meetings, and more of that numbing binge watching that goes along with the binge eating. There’s no sign of spring, as the winter drags on and gets colder and messier all across the country. And today, we don’t get ashes. In a few moments I’m going to read aloud the invitation to a holy Lent and invite you in those words to the season of prayer, fasting, and self-denial, but I’ll let you in on a secret: I really don’t expect you to do it. At least not the way you might normally have done it.
Welcome to Ash-less Wednesday. We can’t get ashes onto your heads in any safe way, unless you want to try out the ‘AshTag’ filter (just don’t choose the cat filter by mistake). For some people, ashes on their head is the whole point of this day – in ‘normal’ years we offer ashes in the church all day, and at the subway entrance too, without requiring people to participate in the whole liturgy. This year, however, no ashes – just the rest of the liturgy. And this year, a different start to a different kind of Lent.
How should we do Lent this year? As one colleague noted, this year Lent cannot be a season for deprivation – we have had enough of that. We have been deprived of companionship, fun, lightness of spirit, and everything that ‘normal’ allows us. This is not the year to tell yourself sternly to buckle down and do without – you’ve been doing without in so many ways already.
And this year Lent can’t be a season for confronting our fear of mortality – we’ve had that in spades too. The rush toward vaccine appointments shows just how fearful we are of a virus that seems to shapeshift into ever more frightening things. Whatever age and condition we are, we know all too well now that we are indeed mortal.
And this isn’t the year to make Lent a reason to fret over our lack of discipline. It’s hard to set boundaries for our lives when everything is in flux – and even when we succeed at discipline we find it’s so easily overturned, as appointments and plans get canceled over and over again. The only real discipline possible is to ‘hang loose’ – ‘wait and see.’
But all of that’s not to say that this year we should just skip Lent, tempting as that idea may be. A bit later in the service we will pray together the Litany of Penitence, a litany that covers just about every which way we might have gone off track in our life. And we have undoubtedly gone off track. Binging on food, drink, and screens may be understandable, but that’s not what we know to be good for us. Same goes for irritability with our loved ones, worrying that bread of anxiety all night, turning inwards to our own survival and comfort and away from the needs of others, breaking the rules when it benefits us – all of that is understandable. But we know it’s not how God would have us live. We don’t confess all of that to make ourselves feel guilty. We confess it because it bothers us, and we know it, and we want help living better. And we’re not alone in it – all of us are struggling with these same things, all of the time. All of us need help.
So what then to make of this Lent, and this day of penitence and would-be ashes? Let me remind you for a moment of the etymology, the origin of the word we use: Lent comes from the Old English word lencten, which simply means spring, tied to a Germanic word that refers to the lengthening of the days. In other words, Lent is originally simply the season of the year we’re starting, not just the church season we’re beginning. And despite the crazy winter storms sweeping the nation, the days are indeed getting longer – sunset is a whole hour later today than it was at the winter solstice, sunrise a half hour earlier. Birds are already singing in come-hither ways, despite the snow. Spring is making its inevitable advance, whatever is happening inside the church or inside our souls. The season of renewal is beginning, all around us.
In the church we talk about Lent as a season of preparation, of looking towards what is to come – the yearly observance of Jesus’ resurrection, the annual ritual of Easter joy. On Easter, just weeks away, flowers will bloom and trumpets will sound. Today’s solemnity begins our journey toward that celebration. So perhaps today is the day we start tilling our soil so those flowers can grow. Remember that you are dust – because there in the dust is where the growth begins. Acknowledge how you have failed – because in asking for help, we start to change. Tend your soil – let it be stirred up and sifted so the hardened places soften to receive the rain. Plant seeds and let the old debris of the past help protect and feed them so they sprout. Spend time with the Gardener, who knows how best to make each plant grow to the fullness of its own particular beauty. And lift up your head to look for the light, because it is coming, it is here, the days are getting longer all the time.
Which all is really another set of words to say, spend your time this season in self-examination, in prayer, in reading holy words, even in fasting and self-denial from those things that harm what God is bringing forth in you. Give something up if it gets in your way, sure, but don’t hesitate to go towards what you need – the light and warmth and nourishment of God’s good sun. We don’t need ashes to remind us of that, after all. We’ve got plenty of dirt right here at hand.
May this season feed you, may the light and the rain and winds bring forth beauty in you, and may we all come together again to the joy of Easter. Amen.