2021 is slipping away so quickly, it seems. It’s almost time for Lent. Ash Wednesday is February 17th. Following diocesan guidelines, the vestry and I have decided to move forward with the distribution of ashes in a way that mitigates the risk of potential coronavirus transmission. There will be three opportunities to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. The first will be “Ashes to Go” in the morning. Between 8am and 9:15am, you will have the opportunity to drive or walk to church, where you will find me standing near the parking lot. To avoid contact, I will use a Q-tip to impose ashes on your forehead, and will say the familiar words from the prayer book. We’ll all be wearing masks (maybe even two masks) the whole time, and my ashen Q tips will be single use.
There will also be two more traditional Ash Wednesday services at 12:15 and 6:30PM. These services of Eucharist will also include the imposition of ashes by Q-tip in the same manner. Services will limited to 20 people, and you will need to sign up in order to come.
Anglicans have often been a little skeptical of ashes anyway. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the first to include the option to impose Ashes on Ash Wednesday, and including this option was very controversial at the time. Many Episcopalians at the time felt like the idea of Ash Wednesday violated Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 6: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them… whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting” (in order to build in some intentional irony and self-reflection, Matthew 6 is the Gospel reading for the Ash Wednesday service). On the other hand, many others have felt that the visceral, fragile, and potent reminder that ashes provide us is important, nonetheless. This strange ritual reminds us of our own mortality, of the mortality of our loved ones, and even the mortality of the people that we see walking around us. It is physical reminder of the fragility and preciousness of life; the need to trust in God; the need to care for and cherish others; the need to live life now, with what we’ve got, while we’ve got it; to not take tomorrow for granted—ashes on the forehead really do it for some folks. It can be a powerful and holy way to begin Lent, that season of preparation before the glory of Easter.
So, I am offering this weird symbol to those for whom it is important. I do believe that physical things, like ashes, like candles, can communicate important things and can ultimately help us receive God grace in our lives. When it comes to the sacraments—the waters of baptism, the bread and wine of Eucharist—my confidence and commitment are magnified significantly. Ultimately, this is because I believe that God became human in Jesus Christ and made material things, matter, matter. They matter in such a way that transcends our fragility and mortality and touches upon the divine. I’m staking my life on that. I believe in all of this so much that I’m willing to hang out outside in the cold and put ashes on your forehead with a Q tip. That being said, the safest thing is to watch the service online, especially for those of us who are might be particularly vulnerable to serious illness because of coronavirus. We’ll take every precaution, but there’s always risk. So, I’ll be here if you need me. But ashes or not, regardless of me or you or what we do, God’s love for us is always nearby. God is always very near.