Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ash Wednesday

What a difference a year makes!

Although the Pandemic was already on its way, we were, most of us, still quite oblivious to its implications last year when Lent began as usual with a typically well-attended Ash Wednesday, followed by Friday Stations of the Cross and community Fish Dinners.  Meanwhile, my mother was unexpectedly taken ill on Ash Wednesday and died a little over a week later. It was, while we were planning for her funeral, that the pandemic suddenly took over our lives and everything else. On the advice of both my doctor and my bishop, my trip to California and her funeral were indefinitely postponed. Meanwhile, we were all suddenly dispensed from the Sunday Mass obligation, and within another week all public Masses were suspended. 

So my typical Lenten pattern became Mass said privately in the locked church at around 11:00 a.m., after which I opened the church for a while for people (masked and distant) to come for private prayer. Meanwhile, because of my own personal technological limitations and the parish's limited resources, it took time to get up to speed on how to live-stream Mass, which we finally started doing on Palm Sunday. Such was last year's Lent, likely the strangest Lent I have ever experienced.

That last Lent ended at Easter, as Lent always does. Metaphorically, however, it feels as if Lent has gone on an entire year, this strange pandemic year of mysterious danger and omnipresent precautions, of masks and distance, of long-term loneliness ostensibly relieved by unsatisfactory artificial interactions like live-streamed Masses and zoom meetings. Ash Wednesday's annual summons to remember our mortality is in one sense always old news, but this year it seems even more so, as we lament this terrible disease's 100 million plus victims and mourn its 2 million plus deaths. Meanwhile, even the familiar ritual of receiving ashes is altered and diminished, like so many other familiar rituals, we have habitually cherished in what we now nostalgically recall as normal life.

Back in that normal time, I recall one Ash Wednesday overhearing someone somewhere in Central Park calling Lent "a time to get in touch with oneself." Of course, Lent is a time to get back in touch with God, but we get there (through the special observances of Lent) by recalling where we are and where we are going, where we want to be and how we hope to get there.

"Lent is a time for believing, for welcoming God into our lives and allowing him to “make his dwelling” among us (cf. Jn 14:23)," Pope Francis has written in his Message for this year's Lent. It is a season that offers an opportunity to be "freed from all that weighs us down – like consumerism or an excess of information, whether true or false – in order to open the doors of our hearts to the One who comes to us, poor in all things, yet “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14): the Son of God our Savior."

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