Yesterday I spent the morning preparing the ash for use in the two services in my benefice today. It sounds as though this should be an easy task, but it is more complicated than it sounds. For a start, the is to use the remainder of last year’s crosses from Palm Sunday. Even after a year, the palm leaves contain quite a lot of water and need further drying in a hot oven before they will burn. Then there is the fibrous nature of the leaves which, even after burning, needs to be broken down for the ash to be usable.
So after taking down the remains of last year’s palm crosses and putting them on in the oven for half an hour or so, the smoke that came out when I opened the oven door sent me rushing to close doors before every smoke alarm in the house went off.
After that it was a quick trip to a sheltered corner of the garden with a tinfoil tray and a lighter. Another forty minutes and the ashes were ready for the final stage – forcing through a sieve into a bowl. The other end of the afternoon and the smell of singed palm had largely receded in the house. But I have been left wondering whether or not simply to buy a packet of ash from one of the ecclesiastical suppliers next year!
In our somewhat sanitized Western culture, there always seems something a little medieval about going around on Ash Wednesday with a black smudgy cross on ones forehead. Although we have become rather showy about all sorts of things over the past few decades, there are certain things we are not keen to parade in public. Way up there on that list is contrition, followed (still, it seems to me) by expressions of grief. Roadside shrines at accident blackspots may have sprung up all over the place in the last fe years, but gone are the days of wearing black as a sign of mourning except on the day of a funeral. Extend that for a longer period and people around you begin to get rather uncomfortable.
But before we write off our medieval ancestors, it is worth considering what such customs are intended to express and convey. We need to look below the surface (which may not seem very appealing) and try to find the deeper intent of the ritual. It is too easy to talk about “mere ritual” and miss the fact that rituals are usually devised to express something profound about our human condition, often something that holds great psychological significance and that we ignore at our peril.
In the Bible, wearing ash, alongside tearing of clothes, is a symbol of mourning and contrition. On Ash Wednesday we wear ash as a sign of our acknowledgement that we are all complicit in the sin of the world. There are our personal failings and shortcomings before God – though God is fully aware of the circumstances which give rise to them. And then there are the corporate failings of our society and culture in which we also bear a part.
Too often when we talk about these things there is a temptation to sink into a kind of morbid introspection. The Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer has confessional passages which seem to pander to this. I sometimes wonder what the psychological effect of, for instance, the weekly repetiiton of the General Confession that begins both Morning and Evening Prayer has been on generations of Anglicans. In one sense it highlights that marvel of God’s forgiveness that is about to be offered and affirmed. On the other, for those who perhaps already feel guilty or ashamed, it seems to over-emphasise our worthlessness in a world that is often only too eager to point out individual shortcomings. Some of the great saints and heroes of the faith have struggled with precisely this. Both Martin Luther and Ignatius of Loyola wrestled with their consciences, convinced at one time that there were still unresolved and unconfessed sins that prevented them from enjoying a peaceful and right relationship with God.
This is not to argue that we should downplay the seriousness of sin, whether individual or corporate. But surely, the point of repentance (and penitence, too) is that it allows us to move forward rather than remain shackled to past failure. Both Ignatius and Luther eventually found their freedom in the insight that God’s grace is freely extended to all, not requiring us to earn favour. For me, Sr. Basilea Schlink’s book title, Repentance: the Joy-Filled Life, sums up admirably what our penitence should be focussed on – the joy that comes from knowing that, whatever we may have been and done, God loves us and, through Jesus, offers us God’s forgiveness, grace and peace.
As we receive the ash today, may we experience not only true repentance but also the joy of a holy and purposeful Lent.