Ash Wednesday in 2021

I’m very much a latecomer to this business of taking the things we used to do in church and trying to make them work somehow online, though I have been consuming these offerings for the past 11 months and so have done some thinking about it.

I’m one of those who actually finds it painful to sit through “Eucharist” on the screen, because to me it just isn’t that. I’ve learned that there are some folks who find it life-giving just to hear those words even if they can’t receive the Eucharist, and others for whom it just hurts too much, and I’m definitely in the second group.

And sure you can do “spiritual communion,” but I struggle with that, too. I trust that God is always coming to me, with or without that wafer, with or without some special prayer that only emphasizes the full experience I’m missing. All of that said, I’m glad to be leading online worship in a community where the decision has already been made to do Morning Prayer, not Eucharist, online.

Last night we did Ash Wednesday online only without ashes. I’ll say here that another thing that’s really been confirmed for me over this past year is that different individuals and different communities have different needs. Good on you if you and your people needed ashes and you made sure they got them, somehow or other. But from my perspective, all the convoluted ways of sending physical ashes out to be placed on the physical foreheads of people who are sitting in front of their computers at home amounted to a huge distraction.

I know we Anglicans put great emphasis on using physical things in ritual, but if in the end the “stuff” ends up distracting from the true meaning rather than bringing it alive, I think we’re going in the wrong direction.

I didn’t preach for our short Ash Wednesday service last night, but I did offer these comments before we began:

So today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Our second Lent since the covid pandemic began.

We’ve had to let go of so many of the things we usually do in church over this past year, and coming to church on this day to have a cross marked on our foreheads in ashes is one more of those things. And I know you might be wondering: What’s the point of doing Ash Wednesday without ashes?

And I think that to answer that question, we have to first ask ourselves another question: What do those ashes actually mean?

They aren’t something that’s required, but they’re meant to remind us of our own mortality: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

We’re fragile. Eventually our bodies will return to the earth. In other words, as much as we don’t usually like to think about it, eventually we all die. And in the meantime, we’re completely dependent on God. We’re not in control. We might like to think we are, but the truth is we are not in control – even of our own lives.

And this year, of all years, that’s something we don’t particularly need any reminders to be aware of, because if’s right there in front of us. We’ve lost more than 450,000 lives to covid so far, in the United States alone. I got word yesterday that a friend of mine had just died of covid, and he’s not the first friend I’ve lost. Maybe that’s true for you as well.

So perhaps this year, as we come to Ash Wednesday and we’re reminded once again that sooner or later we all die, we might want focus our reflections on another question, which is:

How do we want to live in the meantime?

What’s really important, and what is there in our lives that we want to do better in the time that we have?

The cross marked in ashes on our foreheads traces the cross that was made there in holy oil on the day we were baptized, when we were “marked as Christ’s own forever.” That cross is still there – it’s always there – invisible though it might be to others.

We know it’s there. We wear it to remind ourselves who we are, and what really matters in our lives. May this Lent be for us a rich time of reconnecting with those things that matter.