Let me say up front that I don’t think we should beat ourselves up for Lent any year, but this year feels especially important to make sure we enter this season with a clear sense of purpose. I’ve been in charge of organizing the Ash Wednesday services for a couple years, and I always try to spend some time thinking through the meanings of that service and the season as a whole.
Nobody goes into Lent thinking they’re going to beat themselves up, but anytime the focus turns toward sin, repentance, and practicing spiritual disciplines like fasting, I think we have to be clear about our reasons or else it can be too easy to make suffering the point. This has been a year where every one of us has experienced (and continues to experience) loss, grief, pain, and suffering in so many different ways, so it makes no sense to enter into Lent adding to that heaviness by castigating ourselves for not being good enough, faithful enough, or any other kind of “enough” that keeps us endlessly grasping toward grace.
Yes, the season of Lent is about death and loss, yet it does not glory in suffering and pain. Yes, the season of Lent is about repentance, but it’s also about making the way for repair.
In Lent, we learn to accept that death is part of a cycle, and that we must always be discerning when to let go and let die those things that hold us back from welcoming new life. At Ash Wednesday we remember that it is from dust we come and to dust we will return. Lent is about preparing the soil of our lives and paying attention to what needs to die away and return to dust so that the new seeds of resurrection may begin to grow.
One of the traditions of Ash Wednesday is that the ashes are made by burning the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. It’s another reminder of the cyclical nature of life and death, joy and sorrow.
But what do we do when we were not able to gather last year to wave those palms together?
I could easily acquire ashes, but I thought something different might be in order for this year. Instead of palms, I want to invite everyone in the congregation to send me a word or phrase that represents something you have lost this last year or something you wish to let go of this Lent. I will then write those submissions on pieces of paper and ceremonially burn them ahead of time to create the ashes for the service. This does not mean that you will not continue to grieve your losses or that the things you want to let go of will fade away without effort. It simply means that you are willing to begin making way for new life. The submissions you make will be kept private, though there will be an invitation to speak them aloud during the service.
The Ash Wednesday service will happen on February 17, at 7pm via Zoom.