The holy season of Lent begins this week! It is hard to believe we are approaching twelve months of COVID-19 response. We were in the midst of Lent when we had to suddenly shut down the building and our in-person activities last year. I could not have imagined being in the same situation almost a year later, but here we are.
Which is making me think about Lent and Ash Wednesday in particular differently this year.
Our District Superintendent, Dr. Quincy Brown, sent an email to the clergy of our district a few weeks ago that included an article written by an Episcopal priest in Tennessee. The article was about new ways to think about Ash Wednesday and the practice of imposing ashes. It caused me to do a little more digging (an intended pun which you will understand as you keep reading!) and realize that the imposition of ashes is a relatively recent addition to the liturgical practice of United Methodists. In fact, the liturgy for Ash Wednesday in the 1965 Methodist Book of Worship does not include the use of ashes. The one we use today was first included in the 1992 United Methodist Book of Worship.
So what's the big deal?
The whole idea of the imposition of Ashes is to be a reminder of our mortality. This article about the tradition of Ash Wednesday on umc.org tells us that, "The imposition of ashes on the foreheads of Christians to mark the beginning of Lent can be traced at least to the 10th century. In earlier centuries, ashes were used to mark those who had been separated from the church because of serious sins and were seeking to be readmitted to the fellowship of the church. In effect, they were redoing the process of final preparation for church membership along with those doing it for the first time. They were sprinkled with ashes and given rough garments to wear as a sign of sorrow for their sins and their commitment to seek renewal in Christian life through this season. Since the tenth century, the observance of Ash Wednesday has become a general rite for all in the church."
For 500 years, the entire congregation has been invited into this ritual act of sorrow and commitment. I have found deep meaning in this ritual act both personally and communally through the years. But this year feels different to me. We have seen so much death in the last year. I cannot remember a time when the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," have been so present in the regular routine of life.
There is also the obvious caution we must exercise this year which advises us not to be too close together with others not living in our households. Practical theology calls us to a different experience.
The article on umc.org says this in the last line: "Through the service of ashes on the first day of Lent, we come before God recognizing our humanity, repenting of our sin, and remembering who we are and who we can be." I think that last part is the most important thing for our experience of Ash Wednesday this year: remembering who we are and who we can be. We were made from the soil of the earth. And in the cycle of human life, we'll be returned to that soil one way or another. But the spiritual cycle is not as much a closed circle as it is a kind of infinity loop. Yes, we will return to dust. And out of the dust, new life is always growing. This year I think we need to be reminded of our birth from the soil--the soil of God's grace and goodness and its intersection with our humanity. And yes, we'll be returned to it one day. And then some other new life will spring up.
So, rather than imposing ashes on our foreheads, this year we'll be digging our hands into soil from the ground: feeling its soft power and t's restorative promise. This will be a sign to us, a reminder of the restoration and new growth to which God is calling us right now. Don't forget to have your small pot of soil ready for the virtual Ash Wednesday prayer service on Wednesday, February 17 at 7 pm. https://bit.ly/ehumcashwednesday21
I look forward to joining with you in this holy season to remember who we are and who we can be...together.