Wednesday 17 February 2021: Ash Wednesday
A different Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-2, 12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Context: a parish Eucharist in an urban setting to mark the beginning of Lent
Aim: to invite people to live Lent creatively in the way that will best help them grow
Can you recall when you first became aware of Ash Wednesday? Not all Christian traditions have the custom of putting ashes on the forehead, but, if you grew up in such a tradition, you may agree with me that it makes a powerful impression on a child. I have all the childish memories: the ashes dropping down your nose and being tickly and comparing how big your cross was with the next person’s but, even so, there was a sense that this was serious stuff and we were all in it together.
The next stage on my life’s journey was the ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ question on this day – which, again, may or may not have been in your tradition. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as a child to learn not always to have what you want when you want it – but the danger with all of this is that it leads to a rather shaky (adolescent?) next stage. This is either a Pelagian belief that we must set out to ‘achieve’ something this Lent, or wallowing in guilt that once again we have failed to live up to our promise; or perhaps a strange amalgam of both at different stages in Lent. (‘Doing quite well so far’ / ‘It’s been a bad week!’). In my experience, in middle age, that can lead to two routes: either ‘Oh, I don’t do that stuff anymore’ or ‘Yes, I’m giving up alcohol again.’
Stop! Listen! Think! This is, first, what the scriptures are saying, whatever you are in the middle of: ‘Let the bridegroom quit his room and the bride her chamber’. ‘Even now return to me.’ ‘Now is the acceptable time’. If we genuinely did this, every single Ash Wednesday would be different as we use what free will we have to turn to God in our hearts. ‘Be reconciled to God.’ ‘Return to me with your whole heart’. You will never be exactly who you are at this stage in your life at this point in history ever again.
Now this has always been true, but 2021 might be the year when God has really stopped us in our tracks. Are we allowed to apply ashes at all, except by way of hundreds of thousands of disposable cotton buds? Suppose we decide not to? The only thing that matters today is that, refusing to click into any thoughtless regime, we ask God to show us the grace we need at the start of this season.
This will be different for each one of God’s children. This is the thrust of Jesus’ sublime teaching. ‘Go to your inner room, close the door’. Our Father sees all that is done in secret. So, reflect in your heart. What are the idols in your life that need casting out? Are you in slavery to your iPhone, or Facebook’s eternal scroll-down? The sugar hit? Or more serious things than these?
RESOURCES IN OUR TRADITION
And then reflect. There are spiritual resources in the Jewish tradition to which Jesus refers. What you need might have a lot to do with charity. It might help, by the grace of God, to say no to some things. It may be about praying in a fresh way, being imaginative. It might be about carving out more time for prayer, or your family or friends, but may any resolution not be a thoughtless one! On this day of all days, we are called to mature in spirit from exactly where we are.
And maturity will be at peace about all the steps that have brought you here. There was nothing wrong with starting the season together in a dramatic way and neither is there now – although it may have to be different in 2021. At the right stage, there was nothing wrong with learning abstinence; nothing wrong with holding up the mirror to your weakness but keep growing! This is the start of a great season of grace. God is at work within you at every step of the journey.
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