I was listening to a podcast the other day. It was describing the rising levels of anxiety among Americans since the pandemic began.
They were saying that anxiety levels are at their highest since the beginning of COVID-19. Then the therapist went on to explain the overall anxiety phenomena due to the existential reality that we are all going to eventually die. Many Americans have come to terms with that this past year.
She continued that she wasn’t trying to be morbid, but that people are being confronted with their mortality now, and it makes people much more aware of the existence of their lives, and that’s a big shift for people.
And my immediate thought in response to that comment was, “Wow, it sounds like the pandemic served as one long Ash Wednesday for people, reminding us of our mortality and fragility! Well - kind of, but not really.”
Wednesday, Feb. 17, is Ash Wednesday this year, a Holy Day that Christians recognize around the world. It’s on this day that in worship we have an ashen cross marked on our foreheads as we are reminded: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
God spoke these words to Adam in Genesis. We are confronted with our mortality. This happens each year in the Christian church, pandemic or not!
We are reminded annually of our fragility and vulnerability as human beings. We are reminded that God is God, and we are not. We remember that God is creator, and we are the created - out of dust! Yes, we are as powerless as dust.
And yes, indeed this pandemic has been a definite reminder of how powerless we are. But I want to be clear that in no way do I think God was a part of making or even allowing the pandemic to happen. It just did.
Of course, the pandemic cannot be compared to any worship service, including Ash Wednesday, because there’s more that comes with that ashen cross each year than a reminder that we are mere humans and won’t live forever.
For in that cross on our foreheads, we are also reminded that we belong to the Lord. We are promised that we are not alone in this world; we have God and one another. God gives us a community that works together to fight things through the power of Christ like viruses, injustice and the forces of death.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 days when we walk with Christ to the cross, where, ultimately, Christ gives his life for the world, the whole world - creatures of dust and all, so that we can rise again.
So, we hang onto that hope as well. So that when we do encounter sickness, high levels of anxiety or whatever it is that makes this world difficult for us, we have hope - hope in the Lord. Hope that things are going to get better, hope that we can make it through and this hope from God “does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5). Amen.
Kristin Oltmann is senior pastor at Crosslake Lutheran Church.