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Bright sadness: thoughts for Ash Wednesday

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Those who know me know that I take fasting pretty seriously. That does not mean that I am a master of the fast; I get grumpy, get tempted when I fast; I am weak, ill-disciplined and self-centred. However, I am serious about fasting because I am slowly coming to understand that fasting helps me to understand those most deplorable qualities in me. It certainly is not pretty, but does give invaluable insight. It is a pain, but full of gain.

You see, the date of Easter is in the diary, it will come and there will be hallelujahs (that word was typed before Shrove midnight!) aplenty, but it can mean very little if we simply let it fall upon us. A few years ago I walked to the summit of Mount Snowdon. It was a great climb, but I was put out to see people arriving at the summit by train from Llanberis. They had not put in the time and effort, but just bought the ticket. However, I overheard their loud complaining about the weather or the less than perfect view, and I understood that my investment gave the greater enjoyment of the beauty and magnificence of that little bit of creation. We often arrive at Easter like those who roll off the train, and we might get something from the experience, but it is definitely worth arriving the hard way, for the hard way is the way of beauty.

The classic move of giving up chocolate is simply useless. I mean, what is the point or significance of that? Fasting need not be extreme (and should not be if you have health problems), but it should make some significant impact on our lives. This webpage offers some suggestions and advice on fasting. Remember that we can have Sundays off from fasting, and that is why there are 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. As the average British person consumes so much more than the global average, and not just in terms of food, fasting can have a social-justice focus too.

When I was a teenager, my mum got suddenly ill with multiple sclerosis, and, eventually, she died. I was a confirmed Christian, but my faith was not strong. Life-changing tragedies like that can make or break faith, and it made mine. I can remember on the day of my mum’s funeral, taking a walk by the River Exe, and recognising that I had let my short life to the moment blur past like I were sleepwalking through it. I suddenly became aware of the fragility of human existence and life. Of course, I wish my mum were still around, and I wish she had not suffered, but I perceive how good still has flourished.

The Russian Orthodox writer Fr Alexander Schmemann found an apt, poetic translation for a term used by St John Climacus for the nature of our Lenten pilgrimage, it is ‘bright sadness’. It is the atmosphere that suffuses out Lenten array. Fasting is not the goal of Lent, but simply a means to breath in this atmosphere of bright sadness, and the extra prayers, Bible readings and Lent courses too can help us perceive it. As I think about the idea of bright sadness, I am almost brought to tears, but they are tears of joy. So much of our most profound Christian thought can only be understood in terms of such oxymorons, from the manger to the Beatitudes. Schmemann wrote in his Great Lent: Journey to Pascha

Little by little, we begin to understand, or rather to feel, that this sadness is indeed “bright,” that a mysterious transformation is about to take place in us. It is as if we were reaching a place to which the noises and the fuss of life, of the street, of all that which usually fills our days and even nights, have no access – a place where they have no power. All that which seemed so tremendously important to us as to fill our mind, that state of anxiety which has virtually become our second nature, disappear somewhere and we begin to feel free, light and happy. It is not the noisy and the superficial happiness which comes and goes twenty times a day and is so fragile and fugitive; it is a deep happiness which comes not from a single and particular reason but from our soul having, in the words of Dostoevsky, touched “another world.” And that which it has touched is made up of light and peace and joy, of an inexpressible trust.

On Ash Wednesday we receive the both the mark of sadness — the cross in ash on our foreheads — and the mark of brightness — the cosmic thanksgiving of the eucharist. At the end of journey with bright sadness will come the Cross and the Empty Tomb. As I heard someone say: the Cross is the Answer, go and think about what the Question is! To dwell on that Question is to dwell on the sadness of a marred divine image in creation and human nature, but is also to know the brightness that this Question is not unanswerable, not unanswered.

I wish you a blessed and a holy Lent.

Author: Gareth Hughes

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

2 thoughts on “Bright sadness: thoughts for Ash Wednesday

  1. Pingback: Blog on Faith and Reason | Reflective Moments

  2. Pingback: Sunday best: from God to Dracula (a story of contested relations)

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