image from freefoto.com
Embarrassing incident at work today.
As I walked through reception I saw a colleague I barely know with a dirty mark on her forehead. I thought about telling her, but decided as she was about to get into a mirrored lift that she’d see it herself in good time.
But when I got back upstairs, I saw another colleague with a mark and said “ok, I’ve missed something, what’s the mark about?”
“It’s Ash Wednesday”, said my colleague.
Of course it is. What a fool I felt.
I made pancakes last night for Shrove Tuesday (embarrassingly good since they were made from a Betty Crocker instant batter shaker, and it made me wonder why I’d bothered making them by hand so many years).
I won my only real school prize for Scripture, writing an essay on the origins and meaning of pancake day (see this post for more detail). As they said on the TV news yesterday, we’re all so used to thinking about pancakes and live in such a relatively prosperous and increasingly secular society that we’re forgetting that they symbolise something.
But the ash marks reminded me that not everyone’s forgetting.
My colleague mentioned the services that were taking place at Westminster Cathedral and asked me if I too was Roman Catholic, to which I replied no, C of E, and that I’ve not seen that for years (the universal tradition is to burn last year’s palm crosses from Palm Sunday to make the ash, which in itself is a symbolic act).
She suggested looking up the Westminster Abbey website to see if my denomination was doing it too, which was kind of her. One thing about working on equalities issues is that – far from the way that we see equalities described as being about the sweeping away and secularisation of society – it’s about celebrating and recognising our diversity and that that’s what makes life interesting.
But it reminds me of a conversation with a friend last week. We talked about giving things up for Lent and how hard it was this year (I’m trying to give up fruitless worrying about the future, she’s giving up alcohol). Both are small, commemorative acts of personal use rather than big dramatic acts clearly visible to all.
She mentioned that her parents were unlikely to consider what she’d given up “enough”, but she hoped that it would be understood and would not be held against her getting a pass to heaven.
I’ve pondered this last point, because its on this precise issue that we pass for the cultural to the spiritual and a small but significant difference of view.
It’s easy to forget what is cultural (rememberance of the 40 days in the wilderness) with what is spiritually necessary (that is acceptance of Jesus’s gift to us, God’s forgiveness, that the price of our sin has been paid and God’s law fulfilled). It’s not about trying to fulfil a standard – Jesus’s whole message was effectively that this is pointless as no one on their own merit will ever be good enough to meet God’s perfection.
We’ve seen this reflected in so much of religion, both within Christianity and in other faiths, the hope that by setting rules that must be obeyed you’ll be more what God is looking for, or trying to buy your way in to God’s good books through good behaviour. And of course we know that rules that set out to help can become a hindrance by being too hard to meet or becoming the aim themselves rather than the glory of God.
Christians know from Jesus that nothing they do will be good enough, that it’s faith in Jesus (known as justification by faith) but even then the issue is complicated, with James 2:24 in the New Testament the point being made is that what you believe modifies your actions. As wikipedia sets out unusually clearly, true faith in God results in a desire to follow his instruction to love one another, and thus would result in good deeds. But that’s difficult to get your head round – resulting in many heretical positions down the centuries.
Lent reminds us of a hardship endured, and ultimately a sacrifice made for us. It reminds us to lend part of our thoughts to this, for this short period (the classic 40 days to Easter).
But Lent is not just the past participle of “to lend”, it’s a real thing affecting the way in which millions of people in the UK live their lives (and with larger population for C&E Europe, possibly a growing number). We may not have the parading in sackcloth and ashes of the mediaeval world but the connotations of fasting and repentance (conveyed by lack of decoration in church) and regarding the world a little more contemplatively do echo on. Typically we’ve hung onto the fun of the pancaking feasting which the population forgets the follow-up fasting.
But the echoes are now rebounding more loudly. Combined with increasing willingness to show religious faith publicly, whether wearing headscarf , turban, skullcap or cross, even if there are consequences because to those doing it it’s a mark of what is important in their lives. The ash marks are both traditional and the latest manifestation of this. Yes they are symbols, the symbol of the thing rather than the thing itself, but symbols matter.
Let’s think about it, while we digest.