Ash Wednesday, and things start to get serious. After the fun and feasting of pancakes we are brought down to earth with a bump. And ashes.
My family was pretty ‘low’ church and as a child what I remember most about Lent was the depressing idea of giving things up: going without… denying yourself. That basically meant no chocolate. No wonder children don’t like Lent!
Now I’m grown up it’s less about chocolate and more about preparation and – when I buckle down to it – prayer. I find planned prayer difficult and so the Ash Wednesday service is a good point of focus for me. It comes from the Catholic tradition (but then, we were all Catholics once) and before that from the Jewish observances of penance and fasting. The practice includes the wearing of ashes on the head. Did you know that the ashes are made from blessed palm branches, taken from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service? The ashes symbolise the dust from which God made us. As the priest applies the ashes to a person’s forehead, he speaks the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I remember being struck by the coverage given in 2017 to the MP who appeared before a Parliamentary Committee with the ash cross still visible on her forehead, presumably having come from a morning service. At the time, a BBC political journalist thought it so odd they actually questioned whether it was ‘appropriate’ for the MP to be seen to be sporting such a symbol as she went about her working day. Our service is at Duddington church, at 7.30pm this evening, so after church no-one will see the ashes smeared on my forehead, and I’ll no doubt wash it off before I go to bed.
I wonder if I would have the guts to go out and about ‘wearing’ the ash cross, if the service had been this morning?