As a priest, especially a priest in a pandemic, you do not always know how the things you plan are going to go. Most of the liturgical things we do are about 90 degrees off from what we “normally” do, and we just keep hoping they capture the spirit of the original liturgies. I am blessed to serve an awesome congregation whose DNA is wired to be creative, playful, and experimental, so I always feel like we are in this together. But I still find myself holding my breath a bit each time we try something unusual.
Ash Wednesday was no different. We did our due diligence, made ample opportunity for parishioners and neighbors to get ashes for home use, and we figured out how to synchronize our ashes through livestreaming. What I did not anticipate was what it would feel like to put ashes on my own head. Even when I was a solo clergy person, I always had a parishioner put ashes on me after I put ashes on them. But putting ashes on my own head felt very solitary – suddenly I was very aware of how separated we all are from one another – and how lonely that sometimes feels.
I pondered that reality for a few days before I remembered something else from Ash Wednesday. We decided in the pandemic to still offer Ashes to Go – a drive through experience at our location. As we distributed containers of ash, we gave people three options – “ash” themselves as we pray with them, take the ashes home and say a set of prayers we gave them, or take them home and watch our livestream and “ash” with us. One family drove through and I gave the mom the three options. She decided I should go ahead and pray as she put ashes on the foreheads of her two preschool children. As I watched her work – this mom whose story I could all too easily imagine – the stress of parenting for almost a year in a pandemic, making hard decisions about childcare, juggling work, children, and family, trying to precariously hold it together. Here she was, taking on the work of the spiritual nourishment of her kids too.
And that is when I realized the truth. We are very separated, often alone, and sometimes lonely in this pandemic. But we are all feeling those things together. When we gather online together, we are together in our apart-ness. When we swing by the property for drive-through experiences, we are acknowledging our togetherness in our apart-ness. When things remind us of our apart-ness, we are collectively reminded together. It is a beautiful, awful dichotomy, only made better by the fact that we are, in fact, together in this. This Lent, I invite you to pause to look around, and observe the small, sometimes tiny, reminders that we are in this together. Even in our apart-ness, we are with each other in Spirit. And the Spirit is enough to hold us together while apart until we can be physically together some day.