Given the reality of Coronavirus, many of us can't safely gather to mark Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. For those who would like to mark the day with prayer and reflection, I offer this at-home form of Ash Wednesday prayers. Gather with your household (pets included). Create holy space, perhaps at your dinner table or in a quiet corner of your home. Light a candle. Sit in silence for a few moments. Enter the silence and solemnness of Lent. You may also use the service in the Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 264.
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
A reading from the Gospel of Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
God is a fan of dirt, soil, the stuff of the earth. We read in Genesis that God took the adamah, the earth, and breathed God’s Holy Spirit upon the earth and made humanity.
On Ash Wednesday, we recall this holy moment in one of the prayers for the day – You have created us out the dust of the earth. At the Commendation in the Burial of the Dead, we pray, “You are immortal, the creator and maker of humankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return.”
Too often we only associate this return to the earth only with death. Easily understandable. But God associates earthiness with life. We are indeed starstuff, but we are also earth, dirt, soil, and the very holy stuff of creation.
My great uncle Leon was one of the foremost horticulturalists in Louisiana and across the Deep South. If you’ve ever put Tabasco on your food, you’ve benefitted from his work. He loved to consult with people about growing things, from companies like Tabasco to Miss Ellen, his neighbor in his retirement village who thought store bought tomatoes were an abomination, so she grew her own. Whenever people had trouble growing things, he generally said the problem was one of two things – they were either trying to grow something that wouldn’t grow in their dirt or they needed to let the dirt rest.
We humans don’t like limitations. If you can dream it, you can become it, we say. Except that’s not entirely true. Absolutely goals and dreams are wonderful, but we also have the reality of the dirt we have. There’s a reason Tabasco peppers really only have that Tabasco taste when they are grown in the soil of Avery Island, Louisiana. The soil matters. All the nutrients and fungi and other organic matter combine to make soil amazingly original. Different climates, varying sources of water, even the air add things to the soil that make certain dirts really amazing for some plants and horrible for others.
We could see that as a limitation. Or we can see that as a gift, that God has created each of us in a unique way with facets and ideas that grow in the distinctive stuff of creation God has used to create each of us.
The earth of our souls is not so different. What gifts grow in flourish in some of our souls simply can’t even create enough life to pop through the dirt of other souls. The trouble is, we humans start to compare ourselves with each other. We deem some things growing as wonderful and good and dismiss other shoots of life.
Lent reminds us to dig in our dirt – ours, not someone else’s. What is the dirt God uses to plant love in us as individuals and us as a Church? What has God entrusted to grow in our souls? And are we trying to grow something that simply won’t grow well because our earth of God’s creation isn’t made for it?
Lent is a time of self-examination, not only for our shortcomings and sins against one another, but also a time of self-examination for the ways we might celebrate the gifts that grow in our souls. What are we good at? What brings us joy? What proclaims love and liberation to us and to our fellow humans? What grows in the dirt God has given us?
The other reality about dirt is that it needs to rest. Repeated use of the soil depletes it, exhausts it, until it can no longer support life. I suspect this is true for so many of us this Lent. The soil of our souls is exhausted. We have had to make changes in our lives and routines because of Coronavirus. We can’t hug our friends or go out for a long, lingering meals with colleagues. We are tired. We are anxious. We are sad. We may even be depressed. Our soil is depleted. We need to rest.
For all the times I have preached about the foundations of Lent – preparing for Easter through self-examination and repentance, prayer, and reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word, this Lent, I hope we all keep Lent as a time to let ourselves, our souls, the very dirt of our lives in which God created us, rest.
This Lent, like every Lent, the fast that God chooses for us is one of love – love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self. I invite you, if you haven’t already done so, to get a bowl of dirt and put it in your home, on your altar, or somewhere you will see it each day.
When you see it, take some time to reflect on what God has planted in you that needs attention, nurturing, and love to grow.
And take some time to let that bowl of dirt bless your time of rest.
We are earth, infused with the very breath of God, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. But to do these things, we must let God’s love grow and flourish in us, and we must rest so we have the strength to respond to God’s call.
God loves dirt. God loves us. This Lent, may we all return to the earth, the foundation, of our souls in God’s
The Lenten Exhortation
The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all
We are invited, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us keep silence before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
After a period of silence, pray the Litany of Penance. If you are with a group, you may replace “I” with “we.”
On this day, Almighty God, I remember that I am dust, and to dust I shall return.
After this and each petition, offer a time of silence.
I have not loved God with my whole heart, and mind, and strength. I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I have not loved myself as God loves me.
I have ignored your call to serve, as Christ serves us. I have not been true to the teachings and actions of Christ or followed the examples of the apostles in word and prayer. I have chosen my own desires over faithfulness to the Great Commandment to love.
I have been unfaithful, prideful, and hurtful in my thoughts and actions, and I have exploited other people for my own gain.
I have been angry at my own frustrations, and I have been envious at the good fortunes of others.
I have turned from the ways of love and mercy. I have held grudges and have not forgiven others as I have been forgiven.
I have had uncharitable thoughts about others. I have expressed prejudice and contempt toward other children of God, especially those who differ from me. I have not loved those I consider my enemy.
I have sinned against God, my neighbor, and myself by thought, word, and deed and in what I have done, and in what I have left undone.
For these sins, for these shortcomings, and for my lack of love, grace, and faith, I confess to you. Merciful God, and ask your restoration and forgiveness.
After a time of silence, offer the following prayer:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin For I know my transgressions only too well, and my sin is ever before me. Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.
Almighty God, you manifest your servants the signs of your presence: Send forth upon all your servants the Spirit of your love, that in companionship with one another, your abounding grace, faith, and forgiveness may increase among us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Solemn Prayer and Dismissal
Grant, most merciful Lord, to all your faithful people pardon and peace, that we may be cleansed from all our sins, and serve you with a quiet mind and faithful heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.