Ash Wednesday in Coronatide

Lent is a mere six week away. Do you remember Lent last year? Do you remember that awkward feeling of sitting in church that first Sunday when we were told not to touch our faces? I remember laughing about it with the person next to me in the pew as someone then touched the face of my nursing baby. (Do not touch babies even when it is not a pandemic.) Do you remember feeling like we would only have to worship remotely until Easter? Or maybe Pentecost?

Here we are nearly one year later preparing to honor that same holy season when the pandemic began.

Tradition holds that Lent is a time to contemplate our humanity. It has been a season to wonder about our limitations and our possibilities beginning with the dust that graces our foreheads on Ash Wednesday soon followed by temptations of all shapes and kinds on the first Sunday of Lent. We give up those things that muddle of our connection to God and take on things bring God closer. You know all of these things already, dear pastor. You would probably have better wording for the theological implications of this season and probably have a few things to say about what it means to be a human right now.

One of my dearest friends claims that she now believes in the depravity of humanity though she never did before this long season of coronatide. I don’t think she’s wrong but I’ve also been thinking about those palm branches. It is a strange twist where the joy and hope of last year is charred and burned. Ashes are what is left after the fire. Nothing will become of them. They are swept up and disposed. There is no other use for them but Lent is always an awakening. It always leans into the hope of renewal where what has been reduced to ashes will find new life. I can think of no better way talk about this moment in 2021 as we anticipate a world transformed by disease and destruction. It is that that we are preparing for this Lent. We are preparing for what will come.

It doesn’t need to be palm branches though. There is no rule about this as my colleague Leah Robberts-Mosser recommended we “go to our local tobacco store or head shop. Buy dime bags. Put a teaspoon or less of ash in each. Make kits with whatever folks need for your Lenten worship series to distribute. Given how long it will take for vaccinations, it’s safe to assume we won’t be gathering in person until mid summer at the earliest. Plan for a remote Lent.”

This year will be different. We’ve said this so many times but why not live into the wonder of this possibility. One of my all-time favorite post How to Make Ashes reveals my bias that this bonfire is something to be shared.

It’s something we can encourage in the priesthood of all believers. We can invite this spark to ignite what we hope this year will be. When so many of us are looking for something to do, especially in the midst of so much brokenness, we can dare to believe that lighting a fire might prepare us for the work ahead.

Such preparation requires ritual and prayer. You’ll find both in this simple free downloadable bulletin to share with your church community. Download Fire and Ashes: A Ritual to Begin the Season of Lent here. It requires your supplies but hopefully these are things that already exist at home and do not require an additional trip for curbside pick-up.

It was my first instinct to let this service be shared at home without any gathering online.

I thought, instead, it might be more more fun as we approach Lent again to follow another suggestion I saw from a talented and wise minister. She plans to celebrate Shrove Tuesday by hosting a Zoom cooking lesson for kids to test various pancake recipes. This sounds fun but let’s include adults. We need fun too. I don’t know how in the world you do pancake races online but they are my favorite part of Shrove Tuesday and silliness might be just want we need this Lent. Plus, who doesn’t love playing with your food?

That was my first instinct. It was not my last because there are many living alone. There are many, like me, who have not formed a pod. There is so much loneliness even for those surrounded by children and relatives that they can now never escape.

There has to be something for those blessed souls to begin this holy season. I might suggest using the same liturgy because it’s less work for you, dear pastor. Lead it from your backyard and stream it as you usually do. Or gather everyone on Zoom and share in this ritual together which will be lovely except for the fact that unless you sent ashes home, these good people will have nothing to impose. No problem. They’ve got oil in their kitchen for something: olive oil, vegetable oil, canola oil all works. If they really want to have ashes, tell them to burn a piece of toast and scrape off the charred bits with a butter knife into a tiny bit of oil. This might be what they are doing while you are building the fire in your backyard. Or you might ask them to write down all of their sorrows on paper they then tear to tiny shreds. This will make more sense, of course, after you have downloaded Fire and Ashes and decided if it is the right thing for your congregation right now. You know your people, dear pastor. You know what is needed in this holy season.

I know, too, that there are pastors considering skipping Lent this year. It is too much. I wrote Fire and Ashes with this in mind. It’s traditional but not. It has some of the familiar elements but after all that has happened this week in Washington DC, I want to talk more about possibility than mortality. I want us to believe that we don’t have to burn it all down or even that this life is just a dumpster fire of destruction and loss, but that there is something else. We can emerge from the ashes. We can imagine new life together. We can still be Easter people in a Good Friday world.

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