Ash Wednesday, in the year of our Lord 2021—who needs ashes right now after a year like we have had? Maybe it’s just as well that a polar vortex has interrupted even our meager plans to distribute ashes as people drive through the parking lot, after a pandemic interrupted our plans to gather for worship for almost all of the past year.
Now, our best choice for safety is to do exactly what Jesus suggested: stay in our own rooms, shut the doors, and pray to God in secret. Let’s try it and discover what wisdom is there.
The miracle in our time is that we can be alone in our homes, yet still gathered together virtually, through the mystery of video recordings and internet connections. It’s a strange situation for the body of Christ, and it’s strange for our individual bodies as well, when we’re used to the rhythm of weekly worship and the changing seasons of the church year. Without these familiar mile markers, how do we find our way in a spiritual wilderness?
We find evidence of God all over the place. After a year of worshiping and praying at home, gathering virtually and staying in touch through various means, we know from our own experience that God is not locked inside the church building, but the realm of God is everywhere.
Nothing remains in its tidy, compartmentalized box: I go to school and keep my school life here, I go to work and keep my work stuff there, my family life is here, and my romantic life is here, and my friends and neighbors and my personal life are here, and I go to church and keep my spiritual life in this little box here. Now it’s all mixed together: maybe your bedroom is where you Zoom with your friends or attend your classes, your dining table is your office, your computer is where you watch a worship livestream and now your living room is your sanctuary.
Perhaps we’ve been prepared for thinking outside of the box, by the man who once held up a piece of bread and said “This is my body” and then, even weirder, held up a cup of wine and said “This is my blood.” Perhaps following Jesus has always been about being honest about where we are, and glorifying God using whatever we have available.
So we don’t have worship in-person; we can gather for worship by video recording. And even if the power goes out, I bet you can find your Bible at home and immerse yourself in God’s Word, one way or another.
So we don’t have ashes; instead we use what we have. I heard an ELCA colleague suggest tracing a cross on your forehead using flour, if that’s what you have at home. Someone else suggested actual dust from inside your home, referring to the words we traditionally say when receiving the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday: remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
In a book of his sermons, Dr. Eliseo Perez Alvarez says that in the creation story told in the book of Genesis, before God ever says, “Remember you’re dust and to dust you’ll return,” God had looked at everything that had been made and was very pleased.
When the earth was declared a work of art by God, Dr. Perez Alvarez says, “This means that going back to dust is going back to God’s beautiful creation! Dust is not something dirty or something low and despicable. Quite the opposite, dust in the book of Genesis means something good.
“How many of you have observed the marvelous range of colors a sunset produces? And the most important, how many of us know that precisely the magnificent range of colors is the result of contact between the sun rays and of all kinds of dust from the Earth!” So in other words, saying on Ash Wednesday, “Remember you’re dust” is to say, “Remember you’re beautiful.”
The whole reason we’re tracing the cross on our foreheads in the first place is a baptismal remembrance: remember that you are called as a child of God. So even if you don’t have ashes or some other reasonable substitute, you can trace the cross on your forehead with water, remembering your baptism, or even with olive oil, which is what would be used for anointing in baptism.
In the days when I would lead chapel for little children on Wednesday mornings, it was always important to me on Ash Wednesday to tell kids the truth, to speak of sin and death simply as realities of life, to let them know that’s it is possible to tell God, “I’m sorry.” And I would share the tradition of marking with ashes. Every child could decide if they wanted an ash cross on their head or not, and some said yes and some said no, but to each child I would say, “You belong to God.”
It’s still true for all of us! You belong to God. And even when our usual Lenten observance is interrupted and will surely look different, God has not abandoned us but continues to call us to faithfulness and continues to call us to serve our neighbors.
Our bishop in the Central States Synod, Reverend Susan Candea, shared in her newsletter last week that “we have been in the wilderness much longer than the 40 days in which Jesus experienced the temptations from the devil, longing for a time when the fasting is over and the angels would come and minister to us.” Lent would usually be a time for fasting, but who needs more fasting right now, when we have already given up so much?
Bishop Candea goes on to describe how fasting can still be a gift by focusing not on “giving something up,” but on looking at “what the wilderness teaches and gives—God and grace; fasting from what doesn’t and will never fill us, so we may turn to what truly gives life.” She describes being a “stress eater” and feeling the impulse to eat something salty or sweet as a way of dealing with anxiety and avoiding the uncomfortable feeling in her stomach. But she noticed the food might bring temporary satisfaction, and it wouldn’t last. She said sitting with the discomfort and bringing that to God in prayer helped her notice what’s really going on. Additionally, instead of spending money on extra treats, she donates the money to the ELCA World Hunger appeal, so the benefit of her prayers also helps feed neighbors around the world.
She said not everyone needs to engage in this type of fasting, but what might happen for you if you let fasting out of the box and considered your relationship with God, how your impulses could lead you to prayer, how your devotion to God can bless your neighbor?
During this season of Lent, over the next five weeks, we’ll meet back here, virtually, on Wednesday nights for evenings of prayer and Scripture reading, and during these times we’ll be learning more about the ministries helped by the ELCA World Hunger appeal. We’ll also notice ways that we participate as a congregation with feeding our neighbors locally, like through the food pantry at St. Anthony’s and the ministries connected to Isaiah 58.
Did you ever wonder why it’s called Isaiah 58? We read from that part of the Hebrew Scriptures just a few minutes ago: “…if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted…you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.…You shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
We’re not feeding people just because we’re nice, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because we are faithful to God, and God calls us to this work, and God wastes nothing, and God blesses us in this giving.
Beloved, you belong to God. This year, this day, as much as ever. From dust to beautiful dust, you are a treasure, a gift of God’s creation.
Pr. Cheryl Walenta Gorvie