Ash Wednesday: on the threshold of a season of sorrow

Ash on forehead ahna ziegler 558901 unsplashThe Revd Richard Church, Deputy General Secretary (Discipleship), reflects on society’s desire for instant gratification as Christians around the world prepare for a time of reflection, preparation and sacrifice.

The practicing of ‘ashing’, the marking of a cross in ash mixed with oil on hands or forehead, has never played a significant role in the liturgical practices of the United Reformed Church. However, it marks an entry into a period dedicated to deepening prayer, practicing generosity and fasting.

The ash is created by the burning of palm crosses to remind us that the celebration of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem preceded a cruel scourging and eventual crucifixion. One of the admonitions associated with Ash Wednesday is, ‘remember that you are dust and to dust you will return’. 

This emphasis on sorrow for sin appears to be so much at odds with society’s desire to achieve happiness and contentment. Mortality is more often something to be resisted than something to be reminded of.

Yet ‘living the life of Jesus’ today is to follow a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Coming as Lent does, at a time of national heart searching when politics has been described as ’broken’, it might be helpful to be reminded of an occasion when The Times once sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking the question: ”What’s wrong with the world today?” and G.K. Chesterton was alleged to have responded simply: ”Dear Sir, I am.”

Owning our part in the world’s brokenness is a clear-eyed response to moral responsibility which does not try to escape our part in the mess. The wisdom of Lent is in helping us not just to blame ‘them’ but to be reminded of how complicit we are and to therefore allow Jesus to share some of his sorrow with us.

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