Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Smudge Thursday

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I decided to call today Smudge Thursday, the day after Ash Wednesday. Though, for many clergy, it will be Still-Got-Ash-Under-My-Fingernails Thursday.

Lent is well begun, and the candle-lit evening liturgy for Ash Wednesday was a beautiful start. Even fasting felt good today. Although, I fell spectacularly by having two glasses of champagne on the second day of Lent. In mitigation, it was in celebration of a friend’s leaving to take up a big, shiny new job. It’s far better to fall in style!

Following on from my thoughts yesterday about how the Western Church has forgotten how to fast, this physical aspect of Lent, it has struck me how the Reformation cerebralised penitence, as witnessed by the Prayer Book‘s Commination Service.

Maggi Dawn has written perspicaciously about how our atomized, individual fasts are difficult

It’s one of the curiosities of recent times that choosing whether to fast, and what to give up, falls to the individual. “Are you giving up anything for Lent?” was a question no-one would ever have asked a few hundred years ago, when everyone gave up the same things,  and it was only remarkable and noticeable if you DIDN’T join in with the fast. Traditional fasting was never private and personal, it was a public and community exercise, which in some ways made it easier to be accountable.

It’s quite impossible to return to a traditional fast, simply because of this issue of personal choice. You could follow the same dietary restrictions of a traditional fast, giving up everyday staples such as meat and fish, sugar and all animal and dairy products. It wouldn’t be impossible to do, but it would become a dire inconvenience to other people, and I have to feel that drawing attention to the fact that you’re fasting somewhat goes against the spirit of the whole thing. I think wiping the ashes off your face before you leave church has a lot to be said for it, for just the same reason.

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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