“Ashes and anguish” – reads part of the headline of a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, chronicling the impact of the pandemic on local crematoriums. While the practice of cremation has gained increasing popularity and wider acceptance in recent years, cremation rates have skyrocketed in the wake of COVID deaths. Diego Pablo and Tristen McBride, two crematorium technicians at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, have cremated 58 people this past January alone, compared to only 17 last January.
Statistics and stories like these have made us keenly aware of our mortality and the fragility of human life … and we hardly need the reminder this year’s Ash Wednesday brings us.
For many of us, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return…” stings more this year than in years past … and to be honest, as a preacher I struggle with proclaiming any good news in that.
Where is the good news in the backlogs of bodies taken over by a virus waiting to be cremated? Where is the good news in air quality restrictions being temporarily suspended to accommodate the spike in cremations? Where is the good news in telling families, “Sorry, you can’t accompany the body of your loved one in the cremation chamber because we don’t have the time to offer that service right now”? Where is the good news of Ash Wednesday this year?
Where is the good news in ashes that remind us of our mortality and the fragility of human life when we hardly need the reminder?
Ashes are typically connected to the readings this day that emphasize repentance and fasting – which are, of course, things we do. I admit that I struggle with that message of this day and this Lenten season that so often places the burden on us – what “vices” we give up, what spiritual practices we take on, what “sins” we confess, how “contrite” we feel. As though there’s something we have to do to earn our forgiveness or worthiness.
Here’s a little Lutheran Theology 101: Many of us who have been through confirmation know that in our tradition there’s law and there’s gospel. The law shows us our sin and reminds us, as one of my seminary professors was fond of saying, that we are all “rot gut sinners.” Left to ourselves, there is nothing we can do to improve our condition. It is into that state of utter despair that the gospel is then immediately proclaimed – the joyful good news of being made free in Christ.
The purpose of repentance is never to only make us feel “bad” about ourselves. That’s a dismal form of religion at best … and cruel and sadistic at worst. Repentance without the gospel leaves our condition up to us. We’re “rot gut sinners” and it’s all our fault and that’s that.
But the repentance we proclaim is always, always, always for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of hearing the good news of what God in Christ has done for us – rot gut sinners that we are.
“Now is the time of grace” … as one Lenten proclamation reminds us. The time to remember that our mortality is a gift and not a burden. The time to remember that God has come near, gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love.
Jesus’s teaching in Matthew’s gospel today – in the midst of his Sermon on the Mount – reads at first glance like a list of “to dos.” But I hear good news and grace in these words.
“Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you…” Your almsgiving doesn’t have to be the biggest.
“Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door…” Your prayers don’t have to be the loudest or use the “best” words.
“Whenever you fast, do not look dismal…” Your fasting doesn’t have to be life-depriving.
The gift of Lent and these classic Lenten disciplines is just that – a gift … meant to be life-giving … for ourselves and for our neighbors. We can let down our guard, unclench our jaw, relax our muscles that we have held tense for so long, lower our voices, re-figure our faces, and breathe and rest.
For your heavenly Parent who sees in secret, who comes close, who is with you in the most intimate spaces of your life, sees you, knows you, loves you, as you are.
In her timely book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, Katherine May defines “wintering” as “a season in the cold…a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.” Most often, wintering is something that happens to us – whether from illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or just the general ebb and flow of life.
As May writes, “We are forever trying to defer the onset of winter,” trying desperately to avoid it. But as she learned from the time in her own life that forced her into a season of wintering: “Wintering is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible” … “a glorious season” … “a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order.” Indeed, wintering is a gift.
Ash Wednesday is like the start of a liturgical wintering. Lent slows us down and invites us to savor our spirituality. If a Lenten discipline feels like a burden, give it up. Now is the time of grace … a time for much-needed rest … a time to remember we are beloved.
We don’t have to wait until something forces us into this wintering either. We can hear that promise now. You are enough. God sees you, God knows you, God loves you. You are enough.
In our wintering, in our ash heaps of exhaustion, in the endless reminders of mortality and the fragility of life around us, there is the good news of this day. For the God who has become one of us is the God who brings resurrection promise into places of despair and who breathes life into our very bodies. Indeed, God makes beautiful things out of the dust.