I had mixed feelings presiding over Ash Wednesday services this year. For one thing, the COVID precautions we have instituted at the college where I serve as chaplain meant that we did not sing together and that, instead of the usual and meaningful act of imposing ashes on foreheads, we distributed ash in individual packets. More than the oddness of a quiet, music-less, safely-distanced service, however, I wondered about the need for a reminder of mortality and human limitation this year of all years.
But then again, perhaps this is exactly the right time for us to hear an ancient
reminder that our mortality, our humanity, is the context in which the good
news is revealed. In Jesus Christ, we meet God stepping fully into the human
condition – stepping into the humanity, the mortality, the limits, to announce the
gospel. The reign of God is near; and it’s to this reality to which we are called to
return in Lent.
It has been difficult this year for me to think about Lent, a season I usually find deeply meaningful. In my own walk with mental illness, I have often appreciated those seasons of the year which allow church folks to gain a comfort with the more jagged or messy aspects of our faith. But the usual Lenten themes, of relinquishing and repentance, desert and danger, solitude and simplicity, wilderness and woe, all seem harsh after a full year pandemic-induced isolation and anxiety. In fact, my wife Leigh and I agreed last week that we’re not going to take up any particular practice for Lent this year; between the hardships of the last year and the joys and challenges of a newborn, we feel like we’ve had enough ascetic discipline to last a little while.
But I am reminded that the word Lent comes from an Old English word that simply means “spring.” That while I have generally associated the season of Lent with the shadow of the cross, it is also a season of looking forward, with hope, to the Resurrection. Perhaps my Lenten discipline this year will be a springtime practice: to keep an eye and an ear out for signs of new life, new birth, and new hope. Lent means “spring.” May we return to hope and listen for good news.