“…but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust consumes
and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
In a season that has called upon us to refrain so much already, this question may be fair, “Can I bear to give up even one more ______ ?” One more dearly held tradition, one more deeply needed activity, one more long-awaited gathering – It all seems like too much.
This exchange plays out in my mind almost daily as we approach the one-year mark in our collective effort to slow and contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Aware that there is considerable grief already present in our midst at the loss of so much, I want to carefully invite us to consider giving up one more thing as we approach the dawn of the season of Lent – the imposition of ashes.
Like so many of you, the receiving of ashes upon my forehead and the proclamation of my finitude is the starting point of my annual forty-day pilgrimage in the Lenten season. The tender touch of another human hand and heart-wrenching announcement of my mortality shocks my soul, year after year.
Interestingly, however, the imposition of ashes is optional in the Ash Wednesday rite of our 1979 Book of Common Prayer. “If ashes are to be imposed…,” the rubrics read. There is, within the framing of our common worship, an assumption that we might not receive ashes upon our foreheads as a part of our worship on the first day of Lent.
This year, in light of the continuing guidance from the Diocese of Western North Carolina to refrain from gathering for in-person public worship, our Ash Wednesday liturgy will not include a space for the imposition of ashes. Instead, I’d like to invite us to enter into the emptiness of that space and perhaps discover a far deeper truth.
In reality, all our sacraments and rituals are incomplete in what they seek to communicate, the unfathomable love of the infinite God. Bread and wine, water and oil, palms and ashes - none of these last. They all break down and waste away. But the love of the risen Christ endures.
On Ash Wednesday each year, we read a familiar portion of the Sermon on the Mount, wherein Jesus invites his disciples to place their hope in treasure that will last, riches not of this world, a fortune that cannot be taken away. This is the invitation of Ash Wednesday and the whole of the season of Lent – to re-discover that which will truly last, the treasure that cannot be taken away.
In this peculiar time, might we let go of those practices long thought too dear to part with, those places of ourselves too painful to confront? And, in so doing, within the absence and emptiness, might we make room for the abundant love and mercy of Christ to take root in our hearts, souls, and lives.
Praying for a holy Lent for each of you!