Wednesday, February 14, 2018


Ash Wednesday - Carl Spitzweg
Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent, can be dated as far back as the fourth century. Originally it had  two purposes --  a period of preparation for catechumens -- people who wish to be baptized as  Christians  and so participate fully in the life of the Church -- and the reconciliation of  Christians who had committed very serious sins -- murder, adultery and so on. For the first group, the weeks of Lent were set aside for a rigorous program of study, prayer and fasting that would conclude with Baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. For the second, it was an opportunity, in the words of St Augustine, "to come forth from a hidden and dark place",  be re-admitted to communion and restored to "the light of Christ". The category of catechumens has long been abandoned, and nowadays public confession and penitence is almost unknown. Almost nothing is required anyone who wants to attend church in Holy Week and Easter. Yet, while an open and inclusive spirit has its strengths, and judgmentalism is something we want to avoid, we have also lost something that previous ages found to be important -- the spiritual and therapeutic value of real discipline in Lent.

The readings for Ash Wednesday point us clearly in the right direction, while at the same time indicating the spiritual obstacles that lie in the way. Through the prophet Joel, God pleads, "Return to me with all your heart,with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning", but immediately adds a warning that we should not confuse outward show with inward spirit --"Rend your hearts and not your clothing". Isaiah issues the same warning even more firmly "Such fasting as you do today" he tells the Israelites, "will not make your voice heard on high". Why not?  Because it is self-serving and unaccompanied by the real repentance that reveals willingness to change the way they run their lives.

In the Gospel passage, Jesus expresses this same concern. He denounces the showy penitence of the righteous who seek to impress the passers by who witness their zeal. In the light of this passage, which is always used on  Ash Wednesday, the ancient, and now very widespread practice of the Imposition of Ashes seems a little odd. Does it not conflict with Jesus' explicit  instruction to "wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others"? Imposition, though, is not meant as a sign of fasting. Rather, it is a tangible and visible acknowledgment of the truth that lies at the heart of all religion -- our mortality. "Remember that you are dust, and unto to dust you shall return" is the  solemn sentence that is uttered as ashes are imposed in the shape of a cross.

Dali - Blow the Trumpet in Zion
We cannot put off dying, but we can put it out of mind. Yet it is a simple fact that there will come a day when we no longer exist. At that point, the story of our lives -- whether good, bad or trivial - is finalized for ever. The problem with our mortality is that we do not know exactly when that day will be. This is why the readings for Ash Wednesday include the memorable urgency of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!". And so it is for us too. The sole hope of immortality is eternal life in God through Christ, and we can leave it to God to determine what form, post mortem, that life takes.

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