Ash Wednesday Reflection
By The Rev. Becky Zartman
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words, spoken while smudging the sign of the cross on a forehead, are the words most associated with Ash Wednesday, and rightly so. Ash Wednesday is the day on the church calendar we cut through all the normal busyness and hubbub of life and focus on the fact that we are mortals, fragile bodies made of earth, walking through the world, and that one day, we will return to the dust of the earth, whence we came.
This year, however, the words hit differently, don’t they? What other year have we been so painfully reminded, day in, and day out, that we are dust, and to dust we shall return? What other year has it been felt so keenly that we have been stuck in a seemingly perpetual Lent, a painful and penitential, expectant waiting for Easter, for our resurrection? The signs of our mortality this year are more than ashes, and they have been with us all the year long: our collection of masks; our ability to read a chart and discuss epidemiology; the incessant stories of illness and death.
Dwelling on mortality is a good thing. Ash Wednesday is a good day to dwell on our mortality, and offer our painfully limited time to God. At the same time, like all things in this COVID world we live in, this year will be different. We will be having services in the Cathedral, at 12:05 and 6 p.m. in English, and 7:30 p.m. in Spanish, with limited attendance. The Cathedral will also be open by appointment for private prayer throughout the day. Registration is required for all in-person attendance at the Cathedral on Ash Wednesday. For those who cannot attend in person, we will be livestreaming all of the Cathedral services, and making an at-home liturgy available as well.
But Ash Wednesday isn’t all about mortality. Ash Wednesday is really beginning an observance of a holy Lent. The Book of Common Prayer cites self-examination and repentance, prayer fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word as ways to mark a holy Lent. But more than any of those things, which are all good and important, we ask God, on Ash Wednesday, to “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts.”
This petition is unmitigatedly hopeful. It’s been a year of pestilence and strife, and yet, we can trust that God will make in us new hearts, hearts that aren’t hardened, hearts that know how to love and be close to God. Hearts that know how to say we’re sorry, hearts that know how to forgive, but even more than that, hearts who know how to be re-made by God. On Ash Wednesday, we pray to be brought close to God again. And whether we are in church together, or together at home, this is a prayer that God so desperately wants to answer.