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Ashes from the pandemic fire: a reflection for Ash Wednesday 2021

Well, here we are, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season. In all honesty, it feels to me like we have been in Lent for the past 11 months! We have been fasting from so many things … singing, hugging, travel, eating together, being with family and friends, to name only a few. And we have certainly done a lot more praying in our “rooms” since communal worship has been curtailed and so many here had to quarantine in their rooms for weeks. And then there is the almsgiving or acts of generosity and service …  Wow! We’ve had to be a lot more creative this year, yet I’ve seen so many beautiful acts … phone calls, cards, words of gratitude to those who serve us and prayers for the sick and suffering. This pandemic brought out so much kindness! 

Fragility of life

Sister Marsha Speth, author of this reflection, carries in incense at a liturgy during pre-pandemic times.

Traditionally Ash Wednesday invites us to ponder the fact of death. Well, these past months have certainly forced us to see the fragility of life in a whole new way. I daresay every one of us has lost an acquaintance, a friend, a family or community member. 

So here we are today with no ashes for our foreheads. Yet it does feel like we are holding a handful of ashes from this past year. We are holding what is left of our lives from this transformation by a pandemic fire. So, I’d like to have us take a moment of quiet to hold in our imaginations these ashes … the experiences of loss, of change, of challenge, of purification, whatever this year has been for you.

For a minute … just hold these ashes. …  

Then bless yourself with these ashes.  

Hear the words of blessing, “Turn away from sin. Be faithful to the Gospel.” 

Fire of pandemic

Perhaps we could say the fire of this pandemic has blessed us, too. We have been transformed in many ways this year, though it might be hard to see. Certainly the fire of this pandemic has burned away some of our illusions of control, of individualism, elitism. We’ve seen great contrast in humanity, extreme selfishness and extreme generosity this year. We may have noticed some of our own best and worst behavior, as well.

So as we hold the ashes of this year, of our lives as they are, we are invited to turn. Yes, to turn from sin, from what drags us away from our best selves. Yet even more it must be a turning to God, to look at God and to see God looking at us. And in the secret room of our hearts receive and take in the abounding and steadfast love of which the prophet Joel speaks.  

Look beyond

Too often I tend to begin Lent by looking at all the things in myself that need to be changed. And if I manage to actually pull off those Lenten promises then I feel good. And if I don’t then I feel bad. Either way the focus is on me. Paul implores us in the second reading of today, “be reconciled” or joined with the heart of God. Then we will know what is ours to do and we will do it with God.  

The second part of the blessing this Ash Wednesday is “be faithful.” Be faithful to the Gospel, to the Good News of God shown in Jesus. Faithfulness has nothing to do with perfection. It has everything to do with picking ourselves up and continuing, not alone, but with the One whom we follow. If nothing else this year, we have discovered that the absence of physical nearness is bridged by the heart (and maybe some technology, too.) We have found love reaches beyond the physical in so many ways. As Sister Nancy Nolan, may she rest in peace, often reminded us, “only love transforms.” So, as we enter Lent with the ashes of this year, may God bless us with God’s transforming love always at work in our hearts and in our lives. And remember it is in the ashes that the seeds of new life take root and grow.

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Sister Marsha Speth

Sister Marsha Speth

Sister Marsha has been the postulant director for the Sisters of Providence for the past eight years. She also ministers as a spiritual director for people in the local area. She enjoys walking with others on their faith journey.

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  1. Avatar Marilyn Rausch on February 19, 2021 at 9:57 am

    Thank you, Sister Marsha, for this beautiful reflection. Another meditation from this morning reminded that no one can initiate our own conversion, only respond to the call from our God through the circumstances of our lives. This year has been a clarion call! May its ashes be a reminder that our Provident God continues to lead us into a closer and less incumbered relationship.

  2. Avatar Steve Modde on February 19, 2021 at 11:53 am

    Excellent homily! I certainly resonate with her thought that this pandemic has enabled us to more fully realize in our inner rooms that God is looking at us and we are looking at God. During the Wednesday service someone texted that the Sisters should be able to celebrate Eucharist! True! Appropriate thought! (Someday). But I also thought that the SP services, so well done, from the mother house, are challenging us to realize a point frequently unnoticed from Vatican II: Christ is present in multiple ways in the liturgy; in the people assembled, in the WORD proclaimed, etc. (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). COVID-19 has called us to fully celebrate Christ present in the Word.

  3. Avatar Nell Trainor on February 19, 2021 at 12:27 pm

    Thank you, Sister Marsha! Such encouraging and inspiring words!

  4. Avatar Judy Collins on February 19, 2021 at 10:18 pm

    This is very inspiring, Sister Marsha. With the guidance of your words here, I will reflect on the ashes and on an open-hearted path going forward from this past year and this Lenten season.

  5. Avatar Susan Paweski, SP on February 24, 2021 at 9:28 am

    The gifts of the pandemic are reflection and acceptance of what is beyond our control. We unite every day on our prayer of reunion. That is our Eucharist of gratitude for one another and all Creation. Thank you, Marsha!

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