A Sermon for Ash Wednesday
It was about a year ago when the world changed.
I’ll never forget it. It will end up being one of those “where were you” moments that you tell your grandchildren about—where were you when JFK was assassinated, when the Twin Towers collapsed, when the world stopped turning for a year due to the worst pandemic in a century.
I’ll tell you where I was, I was with all of you. In church. At a Wednesday night dinner church Lenten service. I had a plan to fly out the next morning for a weeklong hiking trip with friends in the Southern Utah desert. During the service, I kept changing my mind on whether or not I would go, with the pandemic beginning to rage. Of course I’ll go, it’s just an illness; of course I won’t go, it’s becoming a pandemic; okay, okay, I’ll go; and then after the service, when I was in REI buying the hiking boots I’d never use (for that trip anyway), I glanced at my phone and saw that the NBA season was in doubt because players had tested positive and that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had contracted coronavirus, and in that moment I knew everything would change.
I texted my friends, “I’m sorry, this is going to get really bad over the next few days, I don’t think I can take this trip,” and it did. Before what would have been the end of the trip, school had been cancelled, workers had been advised to stay home if at all possible, bars and restaurants had been forced to close, and a new reality had descended on all of us.
We never had another Lenten service—at least not in person. I caught a cough and was confined to my bedroom for 10 days, because access to testing was impossible in those early days, and the telehealth doctor advised me to self-quarantine. I spent the entire time watching CNN, case numbers ticking up and up, and I mourned when the first death was reported in Washington State, and saw how the virus ravaged New York City and Italy. My Twitter feed was full of horror stories, my Facebook feed full of fear.
This, I thought, is the Lentiest Lent I can possibly imagine.
But I don’t know, friends, I think this Lent might just be saying, Hold my beer.
We are now approaching 500,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States alone. Over the past weeks, we’ve experienced the equivalent of 9/11’s death toll every single day. More Americans have died because of Covid than died in World War II. There is a mass casualty event in our country day after unrelenting day, until the numbers feel as if they have all but lost their meaning—five deaths, five hundred, five thousand, five hundred thousand, what’s the difference?—for human beings were not made to comprehend the scope of such tragedy, and yet here we are.
Our own congregation has been touched by it, both in terms of those who have become ill, and those who have died. Neighbors, friends, family.
And here we are today, on Ash Wednesday, only to be reminded, You are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I kind of want to shout in protest to whoever came up with the liturgical calendar, YOU THINK WE DON’T KNOW THAT?
You think, after this year of mass death, we don’t know that we are dust returning to dust?
Where can I go to make a complaint? I’m turning into a middle-aged lady, apparently, because I demand to speak to the manager of the liturgical calendar!
Hello? Liturgical calendar, can’t we just cancel Lent this year? Hasn’t this whole year been one huge giant Lent? What is left for us to give up? We’ve already given so many things up, things we were never meant to give up! Concerts and parties and hangouts and hiking trips to Utah and brand new baby snuggles. And church! Church, for heaven’s sake! And hugs and kisses and going places and oh, I don’t know, just breathing the same air as other people without worrying about it.
What more is left for us to give up? What else do you want from us?
But here it is again, Ash Wednesday and Lent, after the Lentiest year I can possibly imagine, and the reminder that seems more poignant and painful now than ever before: Always remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Friends, we’re in a predicament.
We are, each of us, mortal. We will, each of us, die.
We cannot escape it. There is no magic elixir. Perhaps sometimes we wish there were. Perhaps sometimes we try to pretend otherwise. But this entire year has shown us there is no escaping the truth: we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
And for a moment, I wonder if we can stop, take a breath, and let the fact of that reality sink in.
I wonder if we can pause for a moment of silence to reflect on and grieve everything and everyone we have lost this past year.
There is no escaping the harsh realities of this world. There is no way to bypass death.
We must look it directly in the face and acknowledge its reality, its painful, terrifying, heartbreaking, tragic, bitter, awful reality.
But there is something else in the midst of it.
Hope, because, throughout this entire year, and into yet another Lenten journey, we are not alone and have never been alone.
Hope, because we walk the journey together.
Hope, because our Lord Jesus Christ has paved the way—into death, but also out of it.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a side-stepping of death, an avoidance of death, a permission slip to pretend death doesn’t really exist.
But at the same time that we acknowledge its terrible power, we also hold onto hope, because we do not do anything our Lord hasn’t already done. For on the other side of death is the hope of resurrection life.
And that is what Ash Wednesday and Lent are about.
They are here to remind us that death wasn’t defeated by avoidance, but by entering directly into it. That is what Jesus did. And we, as Christians, are called to die and rise with him.
Over the past year, the world has given us plenty of death to reflect on, to acknowledge. As we enter perhaps the Lentiest Lent of our lifetimes, let us do so with our eyes wide open, reckoning honestly with our mortality, our pain, holding onto the promise that Jesus has given us: that he will be with us in it and through it, so that he may raise us out of it.
So, no, try as we might, we can’t just cancel Lent. It turns out the liturgical calendar doesn’t have a manager anyway.
We must walk through it, together, each of us.
So, together, let’s begin.
Always remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.