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Reflecting on Ash Wednesday during Pandemic

James Scullion, OFM Features

In preparation for Ash Wednesday, which this year falls on Feb. 17, a friar with 20 years teaching experience, reflects on the importance of prayer and following the Gospel, emphasizing that each day, God walks beside us.

“Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” We receive this invitation each Ash Wednesday as the minister places ashes on our forehead. Each year, we carry our experiences from the past year as we process up the aisle to receive our ashes. This year, we bring our experiences of the pandemic. For me and for some, this experience has been something of an inconvenience as I feel my daily life somewhat restricted. For others, I know, the experience has been a heavy, almost intolerable, burden as they have faced death or have been prevented from being with their loved ones as they face death.

“Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” What are these words of invitation saying to us and to me this year as I am perhaps a little more aware of my own mortality and the heavy burdens of fear and anxiety that many — parishioners and friars — are bearing?

The Ash Wednesday ritual itself will be a little different this year as the minister either sprinkles the ashes on top of our heads or uses a Q-tip without saying anything. Before the distribution of ashes, we will still hear Jesus’ invitation: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” I wonder how people will hear this invitation since we always hear it from our own background which at times can bring with it some heavy baggage.

Sadly, I think many hear these words only as a reminder that they are sinners, even terrible sinners. I am sure we will even hear preachers boldly, but falsely, proclaiming that the pandemic is God’s judgment and punishment for our sins and therefore we need to repent before something worse happens. Of course, this is not what the Gospel says or what Jesus’ invitation to repent means. The Hebrew and/or Greek words behind our English word “repent” mean quite simply “to turn”. We can turn to or we can turn away. If we hear the word “repent” as a call to turn away from sin, we tend to view Lent as a time of penance — sometimes even severe penance — as a means of reparation to God for our sins as if we can or need to “make it up to God.” This is not the meaning of Jesus’ invitation in Mark’s Gospel.

(Image by Grzegorz Krupa from Pixabay)

A Call to Believe and Trust
This invitation that we hear on Ash Wednesday comes from a passage in Mark’s Gospel: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (1:14-15). Notice there is no mention of sin in this passage in Mark, just a call to believe or trust in the Gospel. Even more important is what Jesus proclaims right before his invitation or command: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.” This is the “gospel of God” that Jesus came to proclaim. Jesus’ invitation to repent or to turn is not, first of all, turning from sin but a turning to God, who is “at hand.” Jesus’ invitation is to turn to God and believe or trust in the Gospel that is to trust in God. Jesus’ invitation is really a call to respond to God’s initiative. God has come near, God is at hand. Turn to God, God is right there!

On Ash Wednesday, we are invited to turn to God who is already present, right beside us. We affirm this truth in the words of a Eucharistic prayer that I find both comforting and challenging: “You are indeed Holy and to be glorified, O God, who love the human race and who always walk with us on the journey of life.” (Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs IV). During the season of Lent, we are called to repent or turn to God who is already walking with us on our journey of life. Sometimes I find it is these simple or core truths that I tend to forget as I try to go it alone. I preach this message often but I do not hear it enough myself. Preachers not only need to practice what they preach but to listen to what they preach.

A Time for Listening
This Eucharistic Prayer, I believe, encompasses the core of the Gospel message and the Ash Wednesday invitation as we hear these words in this prayer: “For you have given us Jesus Christ…He always showed compassion for children and for the poor, for the sick and for sinners, and he became a neighbor to the oppressed and the afflicted. By word and deed, he announced to the world that you are our Father and that you care for all your sons and daughters.” I cannot think of a better expression of the message of Jesus. Since it is prayer, it is not only us praying these words but God speaking to us, directing us to repent, to turn, and believe in this Gospel and trust in this God.

(Image by Grzegorz Krupa from Pixabay)

For me, Lent is always a time for listening before speaking. It is easy for those of us who preach to jump too quickly from the Scripture to what I want to say or, even worse, to decide what I want to preach before I read the Scripture. When I do this. I soon realize I am preaching myself not the Word of God. I need to take time through prayer and fasting to listen again to God. Sometimes prayer, my prayer can be like a one-sided conversation where people do not listen to one another because they are too busy formulating how they will respond, to score points and “win” the argument. The basic lesson I need to learn over and over again is that prayer is more about listening than speaking. Prayer is not a deep searching here and there to find God, but a simple turning to see that God is already there. I need to listen to God before I speak or argue or seek to score points. I have questions, I have doubts. Some days my faith is strong, some days I have little faith. Each day, God is there walking beside me, asking me to turn to him, to trust him. “This is the time fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

– Jim Scullion, who professed his first vows as a Franciscan friar in 1976, is stationed at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle, Virginia. He taught a variety of theology courses from 1989 to 2009 at Washington Theological Union.

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office. Reflections published previously in HNP Today can be found in the Features section of the HNP website.