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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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Bright sadness: thoughts for Ash Wednesday

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.

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To fast too furious?

Iftar (berbuka puasa)

Iftar (berbuka puasa or fast breaking) at Mesjid Raya al-Mansun (Mansun's Great Mosque) in Medan, Sumatera.

A blessed Ramadan to all!

Depending on which authority you follow, based on the observation of the first crescent of the new moon, the holy Islamic month of Ramadan began either last Wednesday or Thursday. This month of months is set apart by fasting.

Islamic practice is to refrain, during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan, from consuming any food, drink, tobacco, and having sex. On the positive side, Muslims are encouraged to pray, give charitably and think on God more during the fast.

As the Islamic calendar is based solely on lunar phases without regard to tropical seasons, the months slowly move through the seasons each year. Ramadan falling in August means, in the northern hemisphere, around fifteen hours without food or water each day for around 29/30 days. (Mehdi Hasan has written some basic FAQs on Ramadan for New Statesman.)

As an Anglican I’m fascinated by the Islamic fast. The practice of fasting in Anglicanism is in a shabby state. For most it consists of ‘giving up’ something for the forty days of Lent, usually chocolate. It is not exactly taxing. Apart from the giving up of things, we do encourage Lent courses as a way of getting some positive spiritual input, but we have to admit that it’s all quite slim. The Roman Catholic Church has always been more legalistic when it comes to fasting, setting out what can and can’t be eaten, and how much. However, the history of Catholic pronouncements on fasting shows a steady rolling back of strictures. In contrast, Eastern Christianity has retained a more robust idea of fasting: animal products and alcohol are not consumed during fasts, making one a vegan teetotaler.

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Smudge Thursday

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! Continue reading


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Remember you are dust

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. Continue reading