(Originally written last year, February 2021. Updated to reflect changes in Covid status and the current war in Ukraine.)
Ash Wednesday is not a day for high self-esteem.
In the centuries-old tradition of Lent, we strange Christians begin this forty-day season of penitence, preparing for the joy of Easter by submitting – however hesitantly – to the uncomfortable but undeniable fact that we, ALL of us, are really just passing through.
“You are dust,” the priest reminds each one of the assembled, one by one. And just to make the point clear, ashen dust is smeared on each forehead in the sign of a cross. “…And to dust you shall return.”
That’s in normal times, of course, not Covid times. Last year, that little uplifting ritual was self-imposed. As the priests marked each others’ foreheads above masked-faces, virtual worshippers in countless scattered ceremonies worldwide were encouraged to mark and remind themselves and, all those loved ones who may have been worshipping with them, from whence they came and their inevitable destination. This year, 2022, the outlook pandemic-wise may have lightened a little — at least enough for in-person services with actual cold dead ashes on actual live warm foreheads — but the world outlook is FAR from improved as Russian troops bear down on Ukraine.
This dismal exercise is meant to set the stage for a reflective, more intentional and “penitent” Lent. Today’s virtual service began — like any other year — with no introductory fanfare of any kind, no processional music, no opening acclamation or liturgical response; just a silent slow procession through the (for now empty) church sanctuary.
For me, the opening collect of Ash Wednesday paints a distressing portrait of humankind’s depraved state and utter need for redemption:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who ae penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Before we are smudged with ashes and once again given our yearly instruction regarding our dusty ancestry and legacy, the Ash Wednesday liturgy calls for the Celebrant to pray with words lifted from Psalm 51, beseeching God to “create and make in us new and contrite hearts” while we go about “worthily lamenting our sins” and “acknowledging our wretchedness.”
And yet, amidst all this lamentation, there are reminders not just of our desperate need for redemption, but thankfully God’s eager yearning to offer it.
Thus, for all its solemnity and breast-beating, Ash Wednesday’s liturgy is an invitation, and a glorious one at that.
If I can somehow focus my feeble five-second attention with a faithful more-focused intention for the next forty days (thankfully we get Sundays off), then such a Lenten journey just might crack open a mysterious door a little wider. Lord knows what is on the other side of that door. On this side is the fervent hope of a “perfect remission and forgiveness” from an “Almighty and Everlasting God” who indeed “hates NOTHING”…not even a frenetic and distracted and sometimes disillusioned cynical lawyer who too-often seems more concerned with finding answers instead of just accepting gifts.