A COVID Ash Wednesday
Needless to say, as with all else, Ash Wednesday looks different this year. COVID precautions eliminate the possibility of directly imposing ashes on the forehead. Some churches are resorting to an ancient practice of sprinkling ashes over congregants to avoid direct contact. My church, on the other hand, is skipping the ashes altogether this year. The purpose of the ashes is to remind us of our mortality: "You are dust and to dust you shall return," in the words of the Book of Common Prayer. During a pandemic, there are plenty of reminders of our mortality such as the masks worn at each service. My pastor decided we do not need any more reminders. In some ways, it feels as if the practice of Ash Wednesday is missing some of its liturgical teeth this year. Yet we need Ash Wednesday as part of our formation this year as well as every other year. Absent the typical actions of the day, I want to meditate with more focus on the prayers we still pray.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season of fasting, self-examination, and repentance preceding the church's annual celebration of Christ's death and resurrection. The season of Lent is an opportunity to see exactly why each of us needs the cross and resurrection to reorient our lives toward God and His plan for the world. Ash Wednesday as a service tells us our limits and our mortality, our need for Christ. Life is not our predisposition. Life is a gift from the Creator and, without Him, only ends in death. The prayer over the ashes makes this very point: "Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life." Left to ourselves, we are nothing but dust.
The pandemic has reminded us of this fact. A microscopic enemy has brought society to a standstill and cost many lives. Our best efforts, knowledge, and research have not been able to eliminate it and its effects. Our selfishness has not helped matters. Our refusal to follow proven precautions in favor of asserting our independence has been as great an enemy as the virus. We cannot ensure our safety, freedom, or continued existence. Everlasting life, even more then, is far outside our grasp.
The traditional Litany of Penitence provides an opportunity to examine our individual failings and the failings of our society. Both could make for lengthy lists on their own. However, I want to focus on how the litany can address our pandemic failings. It begins with a prayer of the whole congregation: "Most holy and merciful Father: We confess to you and to one another, and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth, that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone."
The celebrant continues: "We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven." There has not been a shortage of failing to love our neighbors this past year. It is easy to point to individuals not wearing masks nor abiding by social distancing and infecting others. These are easy failures to point at. Yet we can reflect more on ourselves. Have we failed to check in on neighbors? Have we advocated for children at risk of hunger due to school closures? Have we volunteered to serve or donate to food banks feeding those put out of work by the pandemic? Have we lobbied our officials to protect the elderly in nursing homes and long-term care facilities? Has our safety during the pandemic come at the price of racial disparities in our economy and health system? The list of questions could go on. Most of the questions I have written I fall short of. "We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit."
Granted, we cannot do everything. We may have contributed to the spread unknowingly. We failed to act to address the pandemic's pain simply because of ignorance, our limits, or our own pain. And that is precisely the point of Ash Wednesday. We are people of limits who cannot measure up to the demands to love and care for those around us. That is the very reason we need the death and resurrection of Christ. Only He can give us life, heal our pain, forgive our sin, and give us the strength to follow Him. Our life and our success are entirely dependent on Christ.
A central feature of the Ash Wednesday service is Psalm 51, the classic Psalm of penitence. It recognizes our failings before God but also asks for God to do what only God can do. "[You] will make me understand wisdom secretly. Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed. Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit" (vv. 7b-13). "Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation. Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise" (vv. 14-16).
Ash Wednesday looks different this year but is an essential part of grappling with our present reality. It is an opportunity to recognize our weakness and mortality, our sins and our failings, our limitations and our forgetfulness. We open ourselves to God to receive Christ's healing touch and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to follow Him more faithfully in anticipation of Christ's final triumph over all. "We beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy.” That remains my prayer over a Zoom service, even without the ashes.