By Ric Hudgens (right), a reflection from the Ash Wednesday service at North Suburban Mennonite (2/17/2021)
It feels as if we’ve been observing Lent all year. Always Lent and never Easter.
Almost a year ago we started wearing masks, separating from family and friends, working from home, moving to remote worship services, learning to sublimate desire on a daily basis. As the poet Anne Sexton wrote: “Your courage was a small coal that you kept swallowing.”
I’m tired of swallowing coal.
Under normal circumstances (remember those?) I anticipate and savor the season of Lent. I savor how it focuses on our finitude, the certainty of our death, and our organic connection to the earth. The imposition of ashes and the declaration “dust thou art, to dust thou returneth” is a clarifying reassurance in the midst of much that is uncertain and confusing.
Although these elements are not the entirety of the Christian message, they have always seemed to me fundamental and necessary.
I love this season for its potential earthiness. Lent’s ability to ground us in the physical realities of our bodies and of our daily lives. I appreciate that recurring discovery that an annual confrontation with death can be a life-giving experience.
But not this year.
This past year we have reflected upon finitude and death almost daily. The restrictions COVID placed upon us have forced us to live Lenten lives – even after Easter.
Speaking honestly, I hate it. I’m tired of it. I am bristling against my constraints. Yet I observe them out of a complex mix of personal fear, relational love, and an increasing determination to both see and assist others in seeing what this crisis is revealing.
The word “apocalypse” refers not to the end times, but to a revealing time. A time when we begin to get a glimpse behind the curtain.
These have been apocalyptic times. COVID is killing many, but many more are dying as a result of health and income inequalities. Bodies of color are more vulnerable than white bodies, because in this society the color of your body determines the color of your horizon.
So what are these constraints I feel? Why am I in such a hurry to return to “Normal” when normal characterizes a time where I can’t see these inequalities quite so clearly?
Perhaps COVID is the best preparation we’ve ever had to hear again the words of Isaiah 58:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
“Your healing shall spring up quickly” the prophet promises. If we address the neglected issues of justice and oppression instead of pursuing our personal piety and holiness – THEN our healing will spring up quickly. It’s as if justice is the real antibody we need to withstand what comes against us.
Isaiah 58 remains the counterpoint to our perpetual tendency toward individualizing or privatizing this season. We can make Lent about giving up chocolate or social media if want. But what God cares about is justice. God cares that we are caring for our kin.
The Biblical perspective on COVID goes not to issues of personal hygiene, be they physical or spiritual, exterior or interior.
When your kin (in Isaiah’s words) are without food, homeless, and naked, the Lenten fast we must offer is sharing, hospitality, and the shelter of care.
We may respond “these are not my kin”, yet even the apocalyptic book of Revelation, chapter 7, verse 9, declares that when all is revealed we discover that our kin are in fact “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”
So we are invited into a Lent in the midst of lent. We are called perhaps to a deeper Lent. A Lent not just of personal piety and sanctified individualism, but a deeper Lent of social holiness and beloved community.