Two years ago for Ash Wednesday, I wrote about how 2020 was shaping up to be an apocalyptic year. And that was when COVID-19 was still a couple weeks away from becoming the pandemic that has overshadowed pretty much everything else since. Suffice it to say that the news has not gotten any better over the past two years. The only difference now is that we have to face the challenges of natural disasters, our national reckonings with our past, increased political polarization, the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, and now a war in Eastern Europe with global consequences with frayed nerves and depleted resilience.
The question I asked two years ago, ‘What are we to say in the face of this?’ remains just as relevant today as we enter yet another difficult Lenten season. Here is some of what I wrote then in response:
Christianity is not a faith that claims good things will happen to good people, or that we get our just desserts in this life. It’s far too realistic about both the world and the human condition for that. But what it is is a religion that claims that the end is not the end. There is always the possibility and hope for new life, for new beginnings that can be built from under the rubble of what was.
This is what Ash Wednesday is about. We mark our foreheads with ashes as a symbol of our sins, yes, but just as much as a sign of our commitment to a new beginning. This is what repentance is: seeing our lives in the true and pure light of the Gospel. And this includes hope.
Hearing the amazing stories of human resilience and the power of community in the face of disaster compels me to think that this message of Ash Wednesday is about so much more than our sins. Yes, we need to repent of the ways (through thought, word, and deed) we have turned our lives and relationships to ashes, and turn towards God’s new life. But I am increasingly convinced that we must also ‘repent’ of all of the ways our lives have been turned to ashes through no fault of our own. The very symbol itself points to this, since ashes are primarily a symbol of grief and loss, not guilt.
Just as our sins aren’t the end of the story, so too are not other people’s sins against us, or even just the random ways life strikes us down. We make a grave error if we imagine the cross as God’s solution to a math problem. Jesus was indeed “wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities;” but that same oracle from Isaiah also tells us that he “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” The cross wasn’t about balancing the books, but about God’s solidarity with the human experience, and opening up a way of new life through it. When our foreheads are marked with ashes, we are marked with our grief and sorrow — for our sins, unquestionably, but for so much more on top of that.
We are all bruised and battered. Our souls are weary and our hearts battle-scarred. But the Gospel insists that this isn’t the end of the story. We are not defined by the worst moments of our lives. There is a promise of new life.
We are all living our lives to some extent ‘from under the rubble’ right now, the rubble of lost dreams, lost years, lost opportunities, lost lives, and lost security. This is challenging, to be sure, and the future seems more uncertain and scary than ever. But, one of the blessings of being in an ancient religious tradition is that we know that we are by no means the first to experience times like this. Throughout the past two thousand years of Christian history, and if we include our faith’s Jewish origins, two thousand years beyond that, there have been many times when it’s seemed as though the good days are over and there is only uncertainty and fear for the future.
In light of this, my Lenten series this year is going to look at a few of these voices, to see what encouragement they may have to offer us as we are challenged to face our own uncertain futures with faith. (As it happens, I had decided on this theme long before the invasion of Ukraine; little did I know just how relevant it would be!)
I’ll start with the book of Lamentations in the Bible and Judah’s experience of the fall of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon (ca. 587 BCE). Then I’ll look at St. Augustine’s response to the sack of Rome (410 CE), which was a symbolic blow to the Empire’s stable civilization and flooded his North African homeland with Italian refugees. Then, we’ll hear John Donne’s (d. 1631) reflections on a severe illness that he thought would kill him. Then we’ll head to the long struggle of Black Christians in the United States against injustice before looking at faithful German responses to the rise, fall, and aftermath of Nazism (1930s-60s). And finally, I’ll end the series by looking at the thought of Fr. Alexander Men (d. 1990), a Russian Orthodox priest widely believed to have been the last martyr of the Soviet era after speaking out against the nationalism that he saw infecting his Church.