Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Remember you are dust

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Cross of ash

Cross of ash

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. This morning we had communion and received crosses of ash on our foreheads, and we shall be doing the same this evening for those who cannot make the usual morning liturgy.

I am always deeply moved by the words that we say as we sign people with the ash

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

These words cut through the messages of individualism, self-image, success and prosperity that are all-pervasive in our society, with the unnerving message, ‘You’re going to die and then your body will decay to nothing’. I find it a difficult thing to say to the congregants I have come to love. It is like a sledgehammer to the soul.

The Ash Wednesday Gospel (Matthew 6.1–6, 16–21) instructs us to do three things quietly and without show: give alms, pray and fast. I interpret this as an understanding that our Lent (and indeed all the year round) should have economic, spiritual and a physical aspects grounded in the life of Jesus.

The economic aspect is usually giving to charity. We might make one big and sacrificial donation to a charity we feel really needs the money (I recommend Christian Aid’s Haïti Appeal), or maybe donate the money we save from giving up a costly luxury through Lent. However, we can take this economic dimension further: we might be led to investigate where our money is invested (our pensions and bank accounts). For instance, RBS is a government-controlled bank with significant investment from the Church of England’s pension scheme, but it is a major global investor in the arms industry and destructive mining and oil speculation.

The spiritual aspect usually takes the form of a parish Lent group, or a making time for daily prayer. My parish is running two Lent groups each week of Lent studying the meals with Jesus in the gospels. Every day in church, the clergy pray morning and evening prayer, and a few parishioners join us. A good way to make time to pray each day is to join with others like this for mutual encouragement. Looking at various blogs about the beginning of Lent, I commend the idea on The Secret Life of Mom of praying the prayer of St Francis ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace’ (or the sung version ‘Make me a channel of your peace’) each day, and praying that the day’s activity be peace giving.

The physical aspect is probably the most talked about, but least observed. The Western Church has been steadily rolling back the rules and strictures of fasting over the centuries, so that there is little knowledge of how to fast among Western Christians. Look at the Eastern Churches if you want to know how to do a full-on fast: you do not eat or drink any animal product or drink alcohol during the Great Fast, becoming a tee-totalling vegan in effect. We do not want to get trapped in a gnosistic pattern of treating our bodies as an evil to be subdued to liberate our spirits, but we do recognise that when we are involved physically in our worship and service we are more engaged (there’s nothing like a rumbling belly to remind you that it’s time to pray!).

I found Maritime Gypsy’s blog article on Lent an inspiration on how to reinterpret why we fast, what it does and how we should do it. She writes about making a resolution to do something that takes you out of your comfort zone, something that takes you beyond yourself and self-imposed limitations, something which you don’t feel confident about. Maritime Gypsy’s experience of last Lent stands as an encouragement to many. That article also mentions that it takes 21 days to establish a habit, which makes me think we can all make two positive habit changes in Lent, perhaps starting with something physical and then taking up a spiritual activity (like daily prayer) around mid-Lent.

Thoughts, comments, ideas and encouragements below please.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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