When asked to write a blog for Ash Wednesday, my first thought was that it would be easy. For those of us journeying with participants in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are times of increased excitement. Time is flying by and participants are getting more excited about the approaching Easter, when they finally will be baptized or brought into full communion with the Catholic Church. Lent always has been that time of final retreat and preparation for the awesomeness and wonder of the Easter liturgies.
However, it just feels very different this year. The usual anticipation and excitement are dulled by the heaviness of a global pandemic that has completely altered our daily lives for the past 12 months. It is as if we are stuck in an extended period mourning with no end immediately in sight. We mourn for all those who have died and continue to die from COVID-19. We grieve the loss of jobs and livelihoods, opportunities to be with loved ones, and the ability to worship together comfortably in our churches. Our usual forms of comfort in our mourning are not as available to us because of safety protocols, which makes it even more difficult to bear.
Even the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday has been affected! Instead of the traditional marking of a cross on foreheads, ministers have been directed to sprinkle ashes on the heads of the faithful. Our hearts are breaking; so much has been lost or changed with little time to process our experiences and feelings. Hasn’t the last year been a kind of Lent that has yet to find its end in wondrous Easter mystery?
Our world continues to yearn for healing and peace in other ways as well. The United States suffers the divisive remnants of a highly contentious national election and the tenacious grip of racial inequities and violence. Immigrants struggle to find a place to raise their families and make a living in a safe environment. Poverty, misery, and despair fill many corners of the world. Violence threatens the lives of many people.
Perhaps this year we can consider “doing Lent” differently yet in keeping with the deeper meaning of the liturgical season. Perhaps we can offer an extra prayer each day for a particular need or cause; perhaps the alms we give go to a local food bank or other form of pandemic assistance; perhaps we choose to pause from incessant or distracted activity so as to be more present to God and to the present moment. Perhaps we begin a practice of taking the stuff of our lives to prayer in a new way. Perhaps this Lent we take the time to process our pandemic experience with an internal dialogue with Jesus or in dialogue with a trusted friend or family member. The purpose of Lent is to deepen the powerful and loving relationship we have with God, doing away with what gets in the way of this relationship. How are we allowing the life of Jesus to shape our lives through this tumultuous time? How can we make room for Jesus in our hearts and in our lives?
The symbolism of Lent is powerful—death and new life, darkness and light, burial and resurrection. Perhaps this Lent, we challenge ourselves to see these symbols reflected in our current circumstances. Where are the “dead places” in our lives? Can we invite God to bring new life to these places? Where is there darkness? Can Jesus bring us the light of hope and faith into this darkness? What gifts, abilities, or memories have been buried or hidden for a long time? In what ways might they be resurrected for the glory of God?
Inviting God into our lives and making room in our heart for Jesus is a process. It is a process that demands a commitment, as is true with anything else we want to achieve. We need to put our minds, our hearts, and our bodies into the effort, so that our full self might be transformed by the process.
By Sister Janet Marie Flemming, OSB