A Year into the Covid Crisis, Is Ash Wednesday Really Worth Marking This Year?

Today’s reflection is from Robert Shine, Associate Director of New Ways Ministry. 

Today’s liturgical readings can be found by clicking here.

“I see this time as a reckoning. . .The question is whether you’re going to come through this crisis and if so, how. The basic rule of a crisis is that you don’t come out of it the same. If you get through it, you come out better or worse, but never the same.” –Pope Francis, Let Us Dream

In today’s first liturgical reading, we hear the prophet Joel encouraging the Israelites through a crisis, namely a plague of locusts that had consumed the land like wildfires. Unlike other parts of Scripture, God here is not punishing the people for their sins. Rather, the locusts are more a prompt, an invitation from God to “return to me with your whole heart.” The Israelites will come out better or worse from this crisis, but definitely not the same.

Today we also exist in crisis. A year into Covid pandemic, nearly two and a half million people have succumbed to the virus globally. This modern plague has exposed and exacerbated the world’s many other ills: a migration emergency; endemic poverty; increased hate crimes rooted in fear of the other; capitalism and its extreme wealth disparities; white supremacy’s continued reign; faith groups still refusing to recognize LGBTQ people’s full humanity; climate change; and more. We will come out for better or worse from this crisis, but we won’t be the same.

Because the crises we face this Ash Wednesday are many and are intense, today feels less the beginning of a new liturgical season than a waypoint marked in a Lent that never ended last year. Introducing new or intensifying existing spiritual practices strikes me as unnecessary, or, if I am honest, just tiring.

Could that not be said of every year, that Lent just spills over without end? The crises of inequity, marginalization, and violence never end completely. Queer folks who came before me lived through one pandemic already, only AIDS was not acknowledged for years even as it killed thousands, then millions. And while Black History Month is primarily about uplifting the Black community’s contributions and achievements, that history is intertwined with an endemic white supremacy still very much alive.

But Lent does end, and likewise, at the end of time, so will the world’s crises. As Joel and the Israelites offer their rituals, God is “stirred to concern” and “took pity” on them. Pope Francis does not only identify the present crisis in his new book, Let Us Dream, which is the source of the quotation at the beginning of this post, but he also insists that grace is still operative even amid mass death and suffering.

To emerge from crisis for the better, we must respond positively to this grace offered. For Catholic advocates of LGBTQ equality, the response has taken many forms: launching parish ministries, holding trainings at Catholic schools, accompanying someone pastorally, sharing your story with church leaders, loving your child when they come out, campaigning for non-discrimination laws, and more. But underlying each action is the grounding belief that from the crises of queerphobia and transphobia, we can actually emerge better, as individuals, as a society, and as a church.

Michael Sean Winters wrote recently, “That is why Francis is so appealing, is it not? He talks and acts like one who believes the tomb is empty.” Why do I need to treat today as if it is the start of a new liturgical season? What compels me to begin spiritual practices this Lent? Because I want to live as one who emerges from crises for the better, as one who returns to God with his whole heart. I want to be like Pope Francis. When Easter comes, I want to be living as one who believes the tomb is empty.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 17, 2021

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