Ash Wednesday: February 17, 2021
February 17, 2021
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
“Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” These words, which you’ll hear in a moment when you receive the ashes, remind us of our own mortality. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Going to church on Ash Wednesday is a bit like going to one’s own funeral. And while that always seems like the right place to begin Lent most years, frankly, I have had enough death for one year. It feels cruel for the Church to call us to self-denial, repentance, and fasting during this time of pandemic, a time when we’ve all had to give up so much. It feels like we’ve been in a non-stop, continuous Lent since March of last year, and I’d really just rather skip right on ahead to the joys of Easter, thank you very much.
But who am I kidding? I need Lent more than ever this year. I need to be reminded that I am a sinner in need of forgiveness. I need to be shaken out of my spiritual complacency, now more than ever.
Off and on throughout the pandemic, I’ve found myself exhibiting these symptoms: fatigue, trouble concentrating, insomnia, irritability, restlessness, loss of interest in things once pleasurable, overeating, overdrinking, persistent sad thoughts. These are the classic symptoms of clinical depression. After talking with my doctor, I don’t think I’m actually clinically depressed. But I’ve definitely experienced the symptoms. I’m sharing my pandemic experience with you not because it’s any worse than anyone else’s, but being in contact with many of you, I know I’m not alone. From my perspective as your rector, we’re all dealing with this. Even those of you who are extremely introverted (as in you normally recharge your internal batteries by being alone) long for human interaction and touch.
Looking back on how I’ve coped with the harsh realities of the pandemic, it’s clear that I’ve medicated my pain with excess food, putting on 15 pounds since March 2020, and probably a few too many cocktails. My prayer life has been stagnant, with routine prayer practices that have always sustained me leaving me feeling as if something is lacking.
After a very dark winter, I need to hear, “Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”
Lent is all about intentionally returning to the roots of the human condition: we are sinners, and in need of God’s grace. And on this first day of Lent, we are reminded from Matthew’s gospel of the need to practice the spiritual habits of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
The Church’s call to pray is primarily a call to sit down and listen to God. It’s easy for me to pray the words of Morning and Evening Prayer – there are so many words to fill up the time with! Listening is much harder work. It is only by setting aside the distractions the mind produces and spending time alone with God in silence that we can begin to hear the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It is only in silence that we can begin to hear God say “I love you” in the innermost parts of our being.
Beyond the physical health benefits of fasting, denying our bodies food and drink that fill our bellies and gladden our hearts helps us to be awake to the spiritual happenings around us. Yes, we can give up potato chips or chocolate or whatever our favorite food is, and I’m sure that has some level of benefit. But fasting does the most good on the spiritual front when it hurts and is disruptive. Skipping a meal each day, or laying aside meat, or completely giving up alcohol – these are the types of fasting habits that help us see and hear and feel what’s going on around us spiritually.
And lastly, the spiritual discipline of almsgiving – of providing material goods to the poor – is about those we’re helping, of course, but it’s also about developing the habit of being aware of the needs of others. Almsgiving helps us to get outside of our ourselves and think about others.
Lent is all about intentionally returning to the roots of the human condition: we are sinners, and in need of God’s grace. It is a time for us to think about how we might store up for ourselves treasures in heaven, not on earth. Too often, we behave practically as though our faith in Christ only affects the here and now. We seem to think that if we just follow the right steps, we will achieve health, happiness, fame, and fortune. When sickness, suffering and death show up, as they always do, we are left confused since what we believed was our faith cannot make sense of these realities for us. In particular, in our repeated sins, we continually look to the passing realities of this world for a sense of fulfillment and meaning they can never provide. The reminder that we are dust and unto dust we shall return force our attention to faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and that alone, which can give meaning and hope to what would otherwise be the final futility of death. This faith assures us that death isn’t an end of our existence but a passage from one age of life to another. Faith in the resurrection of Jesus allows us truly to enjoy the good things of this created world as they were meant to be enjoyed, without placing on them a weight of meaning and fulfillment they can never provide.
I think the Church is right, despite the terrible pandemic, to remind us of our mortality. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If going to church on Ash Wednesday is a bit like going to our own funeral, let us bury the horrible lie that our faith in Christ is only about the here and now, and let us place all our hope in Christ whose resurrection from the dead destroyed death and brings the promise that we, too, will be raised at the last day. Through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, let us open our hearts and minds and bodies to the spiritual world around us and begin this long journey toward the joy of Easter. Amen.
 Much of this paragraph is from the Ash Wednesday letter of Abbot Placid Solari, OSB, to the student body of Belmont Abbey College.
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