I’m not ready for Lent to start again. It just seems like Lent 2020 never really ended, and we’ve lived in a perpetual state of discipline and self-denial since March of last year. Aside from a couple of Sundays in Lent, our routine of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and Eucharist on Ash Wednesday, from February 25 and 26 of 2020, are the last normal thing we did as a congregation. Just down the hall from me, on the bulletin board near Moore Hall, hangs a collage of photographs from the Brotherhood of St. Andrew’s Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper. Those pictures feel like a lifetime ago, maybe two. Yet, here we are, almost a full year later, ready to start it all over again. I’m just not ready for Lent.
I’m particularly not ready for ashes on my forehead to remind me of my own mortality. These ashes feel a lot more like ashes to ashes, dust to dust from the burial office than they do the remnants of some non-existent Palm Sunday celebration from last year. With more than four hundred eighty-eight thousand Americans dead due to the Coronavirus, I don’t need the reminder. This morning I woke up to text messages with an urgent prayer request for a young man with special needs who was being admitted to the hospital with COVID pneumonia. I don’t need the reminder. Having buried or delayed burial for nearly a dozen of our people over the last year, I don’t need the reminder. I am very keenly aware that death is all around thank you very much.
There has been a gift in the never-ending Lent of 2020, however. Mother Becca, Deacon Kellie, and I have spent hours upon hours digging into the Book of Common Prayer, looking for ways to offer the worship of the Church to those who are staying safe at home. It has been a gift to read the Prayer Book with a fresh set of eyes, to see where it invites innovation, where it welcomes experimentation, and what, when you distill it all down, is really important. It happened again for me in thinking about this Ash Wednesday. I kept getting fixated on this ashes to ashes idea, when it was pointed out to me that the prayer that Mother Becca will say over the ashes asks God that they might be a sign not only of our mortality, but also of penitence.
Penitence, the act of feeling sorrow or regret for having done wrong. These ashes are intended to remind us of our sinfulness as well. To be honest, we probably don’t need that either. In the last year, we’ve seen friendships and families torn apart by political discord. We’ve heard our nation called to finally come to terms with its history of white supremacy. We’ve watched as the world’s economy has been brought to its knees by rolling Coronavirus shut-downs due to our inability to simply do what is best for our neighbors. We have seen, in stark terms, the wages of sin, and our need, both as individuals and as a collective, for repentance.
In the Christian context, penitence doesn’t stop at feeling sorrow or regret. In Christ, we are assured that our sins are forgiven. We just heard that reaffirmed in the Collect for Ash Wednesday, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are 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…” These ashes, then, are not just a sign of our mortality and penitence, but of God’s forgiveness as well. They remind us that God hates nothing God has made. In fact, God loves all of creation, even you and me.
I may not be ready for Lent to come again, but I sure am eager to be reminded of God’s love and forgiveness. Whether you can get here for ashes or not, whether you smudge some soot from the fireplace or ashes from your grill on your forehead, whether you look in the mirror for signs of last year’s ashen cross, my prayer is that this Ash Wednesday and all of Lent 2021, are a reminder to you of God’s grace, forgiveness, and love and an opportunity for you to offer that same forgiveness and love to your family, your neighbors, your co-workers, and friends. Almighty God, you hate nothing you have made, and we shouldn’t either, give us a spirit of forgiveness and love this Lent, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.