A Message for Lent from Bishop Diana Akiyama
Create in me a clean heart,O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me.Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;a broken and contrite heart,O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51)
Dear friends in Christ,
One liturgical year ago, many of us who were leading congregations were preparing for Ash Wednesday while keeping one eye on the news. A strange virus they were calling Covid-19 was threatening infection. It was unclear how seriously we should regard the news of this strange virus. My mindset, at that time, was to soldier-on: no virus was going to take down our Ash Wednesday liturgy. And so we did soldier-on. Only weeks later did the seriousness weigh on us, and we were in lockdown. I, like so many priests leading congregations, went into deep grief over what we were being asked to do: to plan a Holy Week and Easter without gathering together, without Holy Eucharist. I also remember thinking, “We’ll look forward to next Easter when we will all be back together again!”
It is painful to realize that we anticipated the end of the pandemic so much earlier. It is difficult to think about the hopefulness of a year ago because it is not over. We are into the second year of pandemic protocols; and we are planning year 2 of pandemic Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.
Ash Wednesday presents a unique challenge for us as we struggle to absorb this past year and hustle to live into this abnormal world with its abnormal routines. The imposition of ashes is a challenge when we are observing Covid-19 protocols. The alternative approach to sprinkle ashes on one’s head is certainly biblical and historical - and makes sense in today’s reality of safe-distancing, mask-wearing, and hand washing. But I’m wondering about the meaning underneath the ritual of Ash Wednesday. I’m wondering about the ways we participate in the spirit of Ash Wednesday even in the absence of the familiar imposition of ashes.
The Ash Wednesday ritual was meant to prepare penitents to be received back into the faith community. It was meant to focus the hearts and minds of the faithful on the patterns of our living that separate us from God by inviting us to give up something. One of the reasons we encourage giving up something during Lent is to intentionally create a sense of lack or absence in our daily routines, such that we will pause at that moment of awareness around that lack and pray.
In all honesty, I really don’t want to give up anything this Lent. I feel like I’ve given up so much because of this pandemic. But the other day, as I pondered this resistance, my thoughts wandered to those whose lives are disrupted, destabilized, and desperate even in non-Covid times. I began to think about what the ritual of Ash Wednesday invites when you have given up so much already. This reflection led me to reflect on the depth of Christ-centered self-denial. It is not about suffering and the display of one’s suffering, it is about giving up the stubborn insistence that we are in control of it all. It is about giving up the selfish belief that those others are the ones who need to repent. Ash Wednesday is the threshold into the season of giving up our hardened hearts.
These times are extremely difficult as we navigate how to be Beloved Community in the swirling chaos of fear, hate, anger, finger-pointing, self-aggrandizement, self-righteousness, and despair. Yet the more we try to impose our will, our control, our self-importance, the more we get caught in our sins: turning away from God who asks only that we accept God’s love and then love each other.
I want to suggest that we do something daring and radical this Ash Wednesday. I ask each of us to reflect on what is required of us to give up the parts of our hearts that are hardened. Give up the self-righteousness, the cynicism, the deaf ear to those who disagree with us. Give up those hardened parts of our hearts and, instead, open our hearts to loving each other. Period. No conditions, no prerequisites, no qualifiers. Let’s take this time beginning with Ash Wednesday to repent of our hardened hearts and the ways we have separated ourselves from each other. Let’s take this time to open our hearts to the “other” (read: the one who disagrees with us) and to love them by reflecting God’s infinite love for us.
Yes, we are tired and worn out by this pandemic. And even so, God calls us to set aside our resistance and to let in that wondrous love that surpasses all understanding even as we acknowledge that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Blessings this Ash Wednesday and I wish you a Holy Lent,
The Rt. Rev. Diana Akiyama
Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese in Western Oregon