Lent 2017 #1 – Ash Wednesday

Written as a part of a Lent 2017 project. 

Freddie Alexander

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
    sound the alarm on my holy hill.

Let all who live in the land tremble,
    for the day of the Lord is coming. (Joel 2:1)

Ash Wednesday is my favourite Christian holiday. I am often required to justify this. Christmas is a popular choice. Easter has plenty to do. Even Advent has a robust liturgy and scripture. Why am I so drawn to the ‘Debbie-downer’ of Christian traditions?

In the episcopal tradition, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. After celebrating Shrove Tuesday (aka ‘Pancake Day’), Christians attend a midweek Mass, before which the priest marks each member of the congregation’s forehead with an ashen cross, repeating:

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19)

I grew up in the evangelical wing of the Church of England. I was told, along with many of my peers, that we were going to (literally) live forever in heaven.

As such we should not fear death.

As such we should not talk about death.

And yet, people die.

It is this startling cognitive dissonance between evangelical Christianity and Ash Wednesday that I found electrifying. Gone was the wish fulfilment, the happy ending, the gloss. It felt like, suddenly, an adult had turned on the lights and spoken to me in an honest voice.

I felt respected.

As I begin this season of Lent I am encouraged by Ash Wednesday. I feel more attuned to the urgency of self-healing after acknowledging that it cannot be indefinitely delayed. I am called to reconcile with my neighbour because the time for reconciliation is short.

Teach us to number our days,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)

It is appropriate that the core of the Ash Wednesday liturgy is potentially the most famous line of poetry associated with death. The heart of the Christian faith is remembering. To remember Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection, the exodus and prophets.

I must equally remember myself. Each sacrament is a marker in the journey of my life. I will experience each one with varying degrees of consciousness, save one. I can not experience my own funeral. Yet, in Ash Wednesday, this is what I am called to anticipate. Not in fear, or in ignorance, but in submission, kneeling before a priest and accepting a mark of my own life/death.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining

We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. (T.S. Eliot, ‘Ash Wednesday’)

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