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Thoughts on Ash Wednesday

 

So today Lent begins, I hope you all enjoyed pancakes yesterday, and perhaps some of you will refrain from eating flour, meat eggs and fat?

Unlikely I guess

We don’t really give up foods these days for Lent, like many of the old customs this tradition has died out. But the meaning of some of old Lenten practices  if understood can  benefit us when considering how to approach these days leading up to Easter.

Ash Wednesday Service is one such custom.

There was an ancient Biblical tradition of covering one’s head with ashes, wearing sackcloth, and fasting to express sorrow for sins and a wish to be forgiven by God.  These ancient practices may well be off the radar of modern Christians, as indeed are the strong words which  would have been heard by faithful  parishioners on Ash Wednesday from the  1662 BCP.  From “The Commination”

“ Let us remember the dreadful judgement hanging over our heads and always ready to fall upon us. Let us return to our Lord God with all contrition and meekness of heart, bewailing and lamenting our sinful life. Its is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. He shall pour down rain upon the sinners, snares, fire and brimstone, storm and tempest – this should be their portion to drink”

 

We can only imagine how parishioners, young and old, rich and poor, hearty or infirm, received these dire warnings of the consequence of sin.  The threat of God’s wrath upon – to quote from another prayer in the commination,

“ thy servants who are vile earth and miserable sinners”  – must have engendered fear in the hearts of those with little theological sophistication. The fear of not being right with God before death and judgement must have stalked many an earlier generation of Christians.

 

We don’t subject ourselves to these strong words now, but one tradition which many churches still practice is that of ashing. Many of us wear a cross as a piece of jewelry but which also hopefully has a much greater significance than just an adornment.

The cross which we wear on this one day of the year is certainly different to jewelry –  It is the real deal. I want to consider this cross under three words which I think summarise what it is about.

Mortality

The sign of the cross on our foreheads is a sign of mortality. The use of ashes, made by burning palm crosses from the previous Palm Sunday, is very symbolic.

As the cross is marked on our foreheads, the priest says, you are created from dust, and to dust you will return. Ashes are reminders to us of our mortality. God made the first human being by breathing life into dust, and without God, human beings are nothing more than dust and ashes. This helps us to be mindful and live in the light of our ultimate accountability before God. There is nothing of which we may boast of ourselves, only of God.

Repentance

Ashes are a symbol of suffering and mourning. Not because we have to endure a sparse Lent devoid of chocolate, but rather because we are sorry for that which is wrong in or lives and we want to change or to use the religious word – repent.  Repent means literally to turn around from the way of life we have led and point in a new direction – towards more Godly living.

It is not fashionable to repent any more either. Increasingly we are told that our sin is the responsibility of our parents, our upbringing, our lack of opportunities or whatever.

Ashes are a recognition that we know there are things which we can do to change and be better people, better Christians. The ashes are a symbol of  regret  for that which is wrong in our lives and a willingness to try and change. To wear this cross is not about having a nice piece of jewellery, it is about being prepared to change for the better

This is out of step with the world around us, like so much of our faith, it is counter culture. But I like the bravery of the gesture of taking the palms of the crowds, the shallow adoration of the masses, the triumphalism which Jesus so rejected, and using those same palms which the crowds waved, to make the crosses which mark out the faithful few.

This bring me to the last word and I will use the word comfort

Comfort

The church has, quite rightly, been accused of making people feel bad about themselves, and that is true. We should never forget the tremendous privilege of being human, created by God. This is a wonderful thing, and the church has for too long focussed on our vileness and unworthiness.

But Ash Wednesday and what I have said about mortality and repentance, is not about making people feel bad about themselves.

The mortality and repentance of Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are all equal before God. Not one of us is better than anybody else. We all fall short and have no claim upon God’s attention because we are more wonderful human being. That is strangely a message of comfort!

The human tendency to think ourselves better than others is not a nice one. Pride is a sin. However the abandonment of pride can lead to the discovery of great personal spiritual development. Released from the need to be beautiful, clever, successful we can discover more of what God wants us to be.

May Ash Wednesday and all of Lent mean these things to us this year and many more besides.

Amen

March 9, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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