It’s Tuesday, Feb. 2, and word has it that Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, so evidently there is six more weeks of winter. Our friend and Extravaganza for Mission Emcee for many years (this year virtual on March 5, Grace website for info) who also happens to be one of our local tv weather guys insists that meteorologically speaking, whether a rodent sees his shadow or not, we’ll have six more weeks of winter. We live in the Midwest. I guess when the temps go down to single digits this weekend, it either proves Phil is correct, or it’s simply the meteorology of the first week of February.
We’re approaching a complete year. I’ll bet you can guess to what I’m referring. We’re in the 11th month from when our world changed in ways so drastic we were clueless, at least I was. Somehow as I was prayerfully, and hopefully, and with some amount of trepidation putting together worship plans for Lent 2021 in these last 6 – 8 weeks, the massive change that seemed to happen overnight has re-emerged with a stark reality. Perhaps because that was the liturgical season we were in when we were hit with the need to shelter at home. The season that is all about Confirmation classes, and Lenten studies, and 3rd grade bibles, and Scout Sunday, and the assumption that the worst thing that might happen is hitting a Sunday of such massive snow and ice that the pastor and musicians are the only ones crazy enough to show up for church, because other than once, the pastor from the farm won’t cancel even when it’s probably reasonable to do so. Suddenly having worship was not a matter of out-guessing and out-lasting a snowstorm – it was a storm, but not one that snowplows and snowmelt could resolve.
Ash Wednesday is a couple of weeks away. My first year I could not believe what a highly attended service Ash Wednesday is at Grace. A service that invites us to face squarely into our mortality, to reflect deeply on the meaning and purpose of our lives and where we are and are not living into our faith, and at the end to be marked with the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads as words about being dust and returning to dust are said. We need that reminder . . . of our humanity, of our mortality, of the limitations and recognition that God is God and we are not. It invites our vulnerability and, in its own way, our “closeness” to one another. To kneel and have someone mark our foreheads, and to be the ones dipping our thumb or first finger into those ashes and doing the marking, it connects us. It connects our humility, our sense of commonality, it brings us all to that level playing field.
But it’s this year. It’s the vaccines are coming, the numbers are sorta getting better, but we’ve also had 6 goodbyes in the last three weeks of people we love at Grace related to and directly from, this virus. It’s not yet time to be back in a crowded space together, and certainly not bringing ourselves to the closeness of marking and being marked by ashes. So how do we make our way through that?
Dirt. It always goes back to the farm for me, doesn’t it??? The traditional ritual of the imposition of ashes was actually established in 1091 CE. Actually before that, it is likely that ashes were “scattered or sprinkled” on the penitent or in the general area of the penitent. I’m not certain our extremely gift custodial team would be excited about me suggesting in future years we throw dried ashes across the heads of those gathered in the sanctuary, or maybe even taking a big bucket and with someone holding a big fan, throwing the big bucket of ashes in front of it to do the scattering. Seriously, how much fun would that be? I think they, and maybe Jesus, would rather have us carefully place the ashes in the sign of the cross on each forehead. However, it’s this year, and it’s different. So how about . . . Dirt?
This year I’m inviting all of you to collect a small container of dirt from somewhere meaningful to you for Ash Wednesday. Maybe it’s your favorite park, maybe your backyard and/or your garden, maybe it’s from a potted plant inside your home. For me you could almost say maybe it’s from my bookshelves, tabletops, and other flat surfaces that may not see a Swiffer-duster very often – but even I probably don’t have enough to collect in a container *snort. We need enough dirt so that we can run it through our hands and fingers and back into a bowl as we offer thanksgiving and blessing for the earth from which we come and to which we return. And enough so that if you want, you can scatter at the entrance to your home or your porch in blessing for your safe space, (what “sanctuary” actually means) from which you will worship during the season of Lent.
I’m taking a riff from the Epiphany ritual of marking the doorframe with chalk on the festal day of Epiphany that not only places God at the entrance of the home, it places the entire family under God’s protection. As a protestant, I believe it doesn’t get me in trouble to trust that the meaning is in the blessing and not in the particularity of the holiday or the substance used as a visceral reminder of God’s presence, protection, welcome, and purpose for all who enter.
Dirt. When I was growing up and we fell down, moom or dude might look at our knee to see the severity and if not so much would say, “just rub a little dirt on it and move on.” If we were stung by a wasp or a bee, we learned to wet a little dirt into a mud pack and put it where the sting was. I don’t know if it truly made it feel better or if it was the power of placebo, but it seemed to work. Maybe this year those healing qualities of a little bit of dirt here and there from which things grow, and to which things finally break down and return, maybe that cycle of life and death and life again will help us sense the reality of God’s creativity, love and redemption, connecting, and even healing power.
That sacred and weighted-with-meaning moment of those ashes is not what we can do safely this year, it does not mean that God is limited by this pandemic. God lives, and moves, and has being where we are, how we are, and in the deep meaning of the grist and gift that creates life, and this year, that may be just a little bit . . . of dirt.