It is Ash Wednesday today. Despite the comforting familiarity of the yearly cycle of penitence and fasting, this Ash Wednesday is a little different from all the others we have known. Yes, this day still marks the beginning of our journey through the penitential days of Lent. But let’s be honest—it feels more like we are continuing, rather than beginning, the longest Lent we have ever known. Today is something more like an anniversary than a beginning.
We’ve been taught by the church to spend these forty days doing without something, entering into the discipline of giving up something, to create a kind of intentional discomfort in our lives to create space for a renewed awareness of God’s presence. But we have spent the last year giving up things we never dreamed we’d go without—shaking hands, giving hugs, seeing friends, gathering in church. Going to concerts. Simply being with others. That would be a lot to give up for forty days, let alone a year.
One of the deep wells of wisdom in Ash Wednesday is the demand it places on us to confront the fact of our mortality. You might say that Ash Wednesday has had nearly a year of days’ worth of help in making that point this year. The images of caskets stacked up in makeshift morgues in Italy, of endless rows of caskets being buried in New York City’s potter’s field, have torn back the veil our consumerist culture artfully draws across the reality of our finite, physical existence.
But with this has come as well a strange unreality about death. At the same time that we are being inundated with reminders of our physical death, we are being denied the rituals of the church and the comfort of our community in mourning those whom we’ve lost during this year. It is as though the fact of death has simultaneously become both far more severe, and weirdly suspended.
In this moment it is perhaps more important than ever to remember that while Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our physical death—and with it, the urgency of attending to the health of our souls—it is not the first death we confront as Christians. That came in the moment of our baptism—a moment in which “we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
What then shall be our discipline this Lent? What shall we do to create the uncomfortable space into which God’s love can enter, illuminating the dark corners of our interior lives and enabling us to imagine anew the audacious promise God has made to us—which is, after all, the promise from which our faith draws its source?
This second-lap Lent may not be the best time to be thinking of what to give up. Instead—and perhaps more difficult—it might be time for us to adopt the discipline of finding one source of hope in our lives each day. If I dared you to imagine forty things that give you hope, that give you practice for embracing the hope of the Christian faith—could you do it?
It might be the hope of science in crafting vaccines, or the hope of medicine’s increasing skill in treating the ill. It might be the hope of a new child, or a grandchild. It might be the return of spring in our hemisphere—the warming days, the budding trees, the imminent explosion of nature’s resurgent colors.
Whatever it is—take just five minutes each day over breakfast to center your thoughts on something that gives you hope. And when it has introduced itself to you, give thanks to God for it—and for the way in which the practice of embracing that hope opens us to accepting for ourselves the possibility God sets before us.