The Meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent in 2021 America

Photo by Annika Gordon on Unsplash

For Christians around the world, Ash Wednesday marks the transition from the season of Carnival and sensual celebration, to the 40 days of Lent, a sacred time of reflection, repentance, and faith renewal that leads into Holy Week and Easter.  While the pandemic will transform traditional rituals, Ash Wednesday is observed by many by placing ashes on the forehead in the form of a cross, often combined with the stern prayerRemember you are dust, and to dust, you shall return. 

Ash Wednesday is a time when persons are invited to face their mortality; to remember the limited time we have on this earth and reflect on who we want to be, and the path we want to travel; and who or what we live for.  This year is no exception.  In our time of great personal suffering and loss, terrible division, misplaced priorities, and systemic racial injustice, Ash Wednesday sets aside a time to ensure that Christians reset values and, following in Jesus’ footsteps, walk as best as we can in the path that God sets before us.  

To help, several Christians have shared with Interfaith America how they are thinking about Ash Wednesday in 2021.   

Dr. Anthea ButlerAssociate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania  

“We're barely into 2021, and it still feels like lent from last year, to be honest. Yet there are hopeful signs on the horizon that we must hold onto in this time of turmoil and grief- the strength of the communities we draw love and sustenance from, and what we bring into our friends and families lives. In this time of stress and tension, let seeds of hope nurture the relationships you have. WE don't know yet what the future will bring, but we can shape each day by being intentional about living with the truth of our shared struggles during this pandemic.  

Father James Martin, S.JJesuit Priest and author, most recently Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone 

“Frankly, I think we've just gone through 12 months of Lent. I'm trying to remind people that Ash Wednesday is not about "giving something up" but also preparing for the Good News of Easter.  It might be just as important to do something good for yourself or others as it is to sacrifice something.  Truly I think that we've all "given up" enough this past year.  For me the best prayer for Ash Wednesday might be to take time out to notice where God has been good to us in the past year.  That would be a good preparation for Easter, I think. 

Rev. Fred DavieExecutive Vice President, Union Theological Seminary  

“If there were ever a period in the nation’s history where Christians needed to stop, reflect, fast, and prepare for a period of penitence, it is now. While we may be able to take some solace in our individual acts of kindness and justice work, collectively we have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Complicitly or implicitly, as a nation, we have turned away the stranger at the gate, left the wounded and hurt lying by the roadside, made a Golden Calf of nationalism, and failed to feed the hungry and house the homeless.  

Moreover, 74 millions of us signed on to continue this type of collective inhumanity. On this Ash Wednesday, we should cover our hearts in ashes and our souls should be wrapped with sackcloth, while our fasting should be to starve us of our collective inhumanity, thereby creating a sacred space within that seeks forgiveness and opens us to resurrection to new life; a life of mercy, justice and compassion.  Lord in your mercy...” 

The Rev. Dr. Tiffany SteinwertDean for Religious & Spiritual Life, Stanford University  

“For college students, Lent comes this year with more than mid-terms and exams, it comes amid a year of social isolation whether living at home or on a campus still sheltering in place.  It can seem utterly impossible to imagine attending to the spiritual rigors of Lent while so exhausted, Zoomed out, and lonelier than ever. Yet, Lent offers an opportunity for students to pause, to step back from the constant pressures of being on screen and to rest and reflect, allowing themselves to be spiritually fed for the journey still yet ahead.  

Perhaps Lent this year is not as much about interrogating the places where we have fallen short in the past or committing to all the things we want to be more of in the future. Maybe Lent this year is about the radical restoration of ourselves and the world around us. Maybe the most important spiritual discipline this year is one of self and community care, allowing us space to breathe, a moment to rest, and courage to move forward into a future still uncertain, yet filled with hope.” 

Katie Bringman BaxterVice President for Program Strategy, IFYC  

“Many Christians observe the 40 days of Lent through intentional prayer and fasting in order to reconnect with God. I’m not usually one of those Christians. Most years I’m not enthusiastic about adding things to my life, so I participate in the season through regular church-going and not much else. But after a year that has been simultaneously monotonous and full of turmoil, and now in the dead of winter, I have an unusually strong desire for ritual and spiritual practice. This year, for perhaps the first time in my life, I’m planning for daily prayer throughout Lent. I want to allow time and space to be grounded in the reality of our human condition and connect with the Ultimate outside myself. Perhaps a re-orientation and a “return to the Lord” is just what many of us need this year in particular. 

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.