As Lent Begins
This year Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, 17th February. It will be an Ash Wednesday with a difference. It falls in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and the Vatican has issued a directive about how the ashes (obtained from the burnt palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday), can be safely distributed to those attending the liturgy.
We are familiar with having the sign of the Cross being marked on our forehead with ash as the priest speaks the familiar formula either: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This year the priest will say those words only once at the beginning of the ceremony and then, in silence, sprinkle some ash over the head of each person. A fitting and reverent gesture in these extraordinary times.
The first day of Lent this year may have required a small adaptation in the liturgy, but the rest of Lent remains unaltered in its purpose. It is still a time when Christians prepare for the celebration of Easter by observing a dedicated period of fasting, repentance, moderation, the giving up of sinful habits, and the embracing of spiritual discipline.
We may be tempted to think that this year we can excuse ourselves from the challenges of Lent by saying that in dealing with the many demands made on us, and the sacrifices we have to make as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, our physical, mental and spiritual resources are at a low ebb. Might it be the case that we need this Lent more, not less?
Two short extracts from the readings in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday can help us to see Lent not as a burden but as a loving invitation from God to deepen our relationship with him. Through the prophet Joel God calls us to “Return to me with your whole heart.” (Joel 2: 12). In Psalm 50 we ask God in return to “Create a clean heart for me and a steadfast spirit renew within me.” (Psalm 50: 10).
This Lent can be a time of simplicity, pairing down and clearing away the things that are getting in the way between God and me. It can be a time to take a clear-eyed look at myself and honestly see who I am, just as God does. Lent is a time of great hope as I come to realise how much God longs for a relationship with me.
Can we imagine the six weeks of Lent as time to spend with one who loves us so much, who forgives and comforts us and rejoices in our love? And isn’t that celebration of love even deeper and more joyful when, after a time of separation from God through our sins and human frailty, we return to him?
A Monk of Quarr