I recently came across some sermon notes for Ash Wednesday that I made 15 years ago. My notes were all about Ash Wednesday reminding us of our mortality. I was struck by how much sense those notes made then, but don’t make now. I was amazed by how much our world has changed in just a few short years.
In 2007 we hadn’t yet gone through the Great Recession. While Climate Change was well-known, most of us were living in denial and hadn’t really come to grips with it. There were plenty of people trying to get us to wake up to the realities of white privilege and systemic racism, but most of us were still woefully asleep, and we were still 6 years away from the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. And the closest any of us had come to experiencing a pandemic was by watching a horror moving depicting one.
Instead, in 2007 most people in the congregation I was serving at the time, lived comfortable and safe lives. All of us could very easily avoid thinking about or contemplating death, both our own and the death of those we loved. We lived in a culture that did everything it could to encourage us to pretend that death did not exist. Therefore, it made sense that I would preach an Ash Wednesday sermon that focused on our mortality. For it is true that we can only really live when we understand that we will die. It is only in understanding our limitations that we can live an expansive life.
But 2022 is not 2007. Today we are surrounded by reminders of our mortality. We are closing in on a million deaths from COVID in this country since the pandemic began. Every time we put on a mask to protect ourselves and others, we are reminded of this truth. We see the effects of climate change and the deaths resulting from it both of humans and other living things. We have seen the videos of black people being murdered at the hands of police officers and other self-appointed keepers of the law. We are watching as Russia is invading Ukraine and murdering its people. Mortality is very real to all of us. We don’t need to be reminded of it. Indeed, we are all exhausted because our mortality is too much with us all the time.
As I reflected upon this all, I wondered, “Do we even need Ash Wednesday and Lent this year?” Perhaps what we really need is a break from all this penitential mortality-focusing stuff. But then I started thinking about what Lent could be, since after all every liturgical season is a human creation and can be whatever we need it to be.
So, what does Lent mean to me this year? What do I need from Lent this year? Well, it is the 6 ½ weeks or so leading up to Easter. And what is Easter? It is a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. It is a celebration of God’s love for us and for all of creation. It is a statement that life wins, love wins, God wins and evil and death do not. It is a recollection that God wants life and peace for all of creation. Perhaps Lent could be a time of preparation for resurrection. Perhaps Lent could be a time of reflection and nourishment that we might be ready to receive that love, to be resurrected. I know I could use a little resurrection in my life right now.
So, what might I do that would prepare me for new life, to receive God’s love? How could I spend the next 6 ½ weeks reorienting myself to God’s love and care that I might find myself resurrected on Easter Day? And how about you? What does Lent mean for you? How might Lent be for you a season that brings you life in a world and time in which we are surrounded by news of death?
I think the Black Lives Matter movement, the Great Resignation and many of the other great social changes happening right now are happening because we are living in a time when we can’t avoid facing our mortality. People are taking a closer look at how our society is structured and are realizing that many of the ways we have always done things doesn’t working for most people. Many are noticing the parts of our culture that are not life-giving and are trying to shed those parts. Two years of living with the constant presence of a deadly disease has caused a lot of us to question our lives and the world we live in.
These are good struggles, good questions, and good changes that are happening, and we are tired. We are in need of God’s love. We are in need of restoration and resurrection. What ways of being, practices taken on, or practices given up will help to nourish you over the next 6 ½ weeks and beyond? What will help you during this Lenten season to figure out what will bring you life? What will bring you closer to God’s love and to new life in Christ? Maybe you don’t know yet. Maybe you need to simply spend the season of Lent reflecting on these questions.
So, no I’m not going to spend this Ash Wednesday reminding us about our mortality. Though I will put ashes on your forehead. The events of the world are doing that just fine. But I will encourage you to use this Lent for nourishment and to look toward resurrection. For as followers of the risen Christ, we know that death is not the final word. May this Lent be for all of us a time of nourishment, reflection and new life. I leave you with the words of Isaiah, which I think are worth hearing a second time.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
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.