Ash Wednesday

Today we enter the season of Lent a year into the global coronavirus pandemic. Last year the pandemic struck not long after Lent began. So we truly didn’t know what we were up against, and we were confident life would just go ahead as planned. Soon our confidence began to falter. Bars and restaurants closed. Theaters went dark. Athletic venues shut their doors. Schools and nursing homes and hospitals went into lockdown. Every indoor gathering even with extended family became a potential mass casualty site, every event attendee a potential assassin. Then churches across the country all over the world began to cancel in-person services because nobody knew, not even the best and brightest of the medical community, how the virus would behave.

The coronavirus was a sneaky invisible danger, a phantom menace if you will. It had no face, no physical manifestation, no lingering shadow. There were no advancing footsteps to listen for, no clear changes in humidity and air pressure levels to measure, no courtesy email to warn us when it would show up at our doorstep. We could never see it coming. But we could tell we brushed against it or were at least in its presence even just for a moment, but unfortunately it was then too late. Soon we learned that everything it touched became a potential threat to us, to those we love dearly, even to life itself. It didn’t matter that it hid behind friendly and familiar faces. Whoever it recruited into its army became a bringer of suffering and death, be it a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor, even people we were willing to trust, doctors and nurses, law enforcement, pastoral care ministers and church volunteers.

And we would not even be safe from ourselves. The virus had power to breach our last defenses because of our ignorance or carelessness. All it took was for us to unknowingly pick it up and innocently touch our faces, our eyes, and our mouths. Also, symptoms of infection were at first indistinguishable from the common cold and seasonal flu if they even presented at all. Some would require life-saving measures which were soon in short supply, while others would experience no discernible change or the least discomfort. But death walks among us unconstrained and unseen. We know to take reasonable precautions and practice simple safe measures. But fear and doubt will linger and leave us feeling abandoned and adrift.

Lent holds the inner peace we crave and the lasting assurance we need to remind us our loving and merciful God also walks alongside us. Now we have heard many times before that Lent is a time of intense personal spiritual work and renewal. The ancient biblical practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving take on greater focus. We look to spend more time in prayer, intense prayer, quality prayer, not just by saying a bunch of words, not just by watching our clocks. We think up things to give up for Lent, things that we have grown attached to, things we don’t really need and that often gets in the way of our following of Jesus. We seek opportunities to give to and serve our neighbor, taking down walls we have built, mending strained relationships, turning the page and beginning anew. But under current pandemic restrictions a lot of these great ideas will be more difficult to pull off. Perhaps we need a new strategy.

Despite the picture the prophet Joel paints of a familiar communal ritual of public petition to God and atonement for our sins, we tend to miss an earlier point that is perhaps the very heart of our Ash Wednesday observance and quite possibly the entire Lenten season altogether. “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.”

In years past we would set aside some time in our busy schedule to mark this day. It’s not something we typically do in the middle of the week. And for some people, it’s just another week no different from any other week of the year. But for force of habit and a sometimes misguided self-respect, we participate in public religious rituals to mark the start of this holy season. A plain attire acknowledges our insignificance before God. And we will make sure to get on our knees and remind God that we had not forgotten. We join the assembly in familiar hymns and prayers. Then we approach the altar where the minister traces on our forehead a cross of ash while the words are spoken, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The rest of the service is often a blur, an exercise in heroic patience. It will all be over soon, and we can return to our lives. But not before we check out how the ashes look on our forehead—perfectly centered and large and dark. Or maybe we ended up in the other line, the one where no one can tell you even made it to church at all.

We admit it’s juvenile. It’s not what Ash Wednesday is all about. So tomorrow I will set aside more time for prayer. There’s no guarantee it’ll happen every day—you know, life happens—so it’s always good to start strong. Also, I will indulge less in the things that I so enjoy, which is mostly junk food and trash TV and occasional gossiping and swearing. But I’ll be taking a break from all that on Sundays. Somebody told me not too long ago Sundays in Lent don’t count. And finally, I will try to do something good for someone. I don’t know what yet or who the recipient of my largesse will be, but that’s a minor concern. Tomorrow I will do Lent and it shall be done right.

St. Paul is also on the same track as the prophet Joel. “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. … [and] we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” Reconciliation with God suggests we come with God to a meeting of the minds and contribute to a restoration of friendship. If we have cause to hold bitterness or resentment against God in our hearts, Paul pleads with us to lay down the burdens we carry and know the peace of God’s mercy. It is not a popular practice even among devout churchgoers, but actually confessing our guilt and hearing the spoken words of absolution can soothe our hurts and troubled spirits. And if you’re out of practice or you’ve never done it before officially, any minister worth their salt should be able to help you through it.

And like Jesus points out in the gospel passage we read today, it’s not at all about getting the measurable details just right, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. Instead it’s about having confidence that our heavenly Father knows our true intent and sees the sincerity of our actions. Giving alms should extend beyond writing a check to some charity or cleaning out our closets and donating our surplus to the poor. It’s more about recognizing our neighbor’s need in the face of our blessings and the Lord’s command to love one another. But it’s still up to us entirely how we respond. Circumstances need not be dire. No one needs to be in grave danger. But if we are who we claim to be, we need to step up to the plate. Or it’s just all talk.

Prayer is not about the words we say or the time we spend in solitude on our knees. So our prayer during Lent is not simply about saying different words or putting in more time. Instead it’s about listening, whether it’s Lent or not, because God is trying to speak to our heart. When we put our hands together, God opens his. When we quiet our minds, God lets us know of his presence. When we empty our hearts of selfishness and distraction, God fills us with the vastness of his spirit. And when God speaks, the universe is brought into being.

We usually don’t fast unless we actually run out of food or we’re preparing for surgery. And in this land of plenty, food is seldom out of reach, an obscene assortment and abundance of it. Fasting is more about taking on ourselves unnecessary suffering. It doesn’t alleviate anyone else’s real suffering. But it opens our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to the suffering of others. Fasting might affect our attention span, our sugar level, and our waistline. But until we use it to fuel our outreach to our neighbor in charity and service, it will only serve to whittle away our physical bodies.

All three Lenten disciplines can be a great help to reconnect us with God and our neighbor. Covid or not, our observance of Lent this year should be more focused on rending our hearts and not our garments, and on being reconciled with God. We’re a year into wearing masks and washing our hands and socially distancing and getting vaccinated. We must do our part to defeat this virus. And we must do our part to be reconciled with God. We certainly have a variety of options. But it’s mostly centered on a willingness to be created anew. We believe God is also at work, often in mysterious ways. God who created the world without our help will need our help to create it anew.

Rolo B Castillo © 2021