A letter for Ash Wednesday 2022
A letter for Ash Wednesday 2022 from Archbishop Michael Jackson.
Ash Wednesday is, and always has been, a watershed in the calendar of the Christian Church. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the church’s year. It is a defining moment, if ever there were one. For those of us who follow this way of life, it is the start of a very particular path of discipleship. In terms that are frequently used of a journey of importance and significance today, it can be described as a camino with Christ. For any of us, this can be a journey of discovery not least now that Restrictions are almost entirely lifted and we have a new type of freedom to move and to engage with one another in our society. And once again I want to express recognition and appreciation to everyone who has done and who continues to keep the wheels of our society turning.This has not been easy. This is not easy. And I would never want to give the impression that we have lapsed in our gratitude. The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are ground down from the palms that are waved on Palm Sunday in the previous year. There is an ecology of salvation as well as a theology.The Kingship of Christ and the Passion of Christ both form the raw materials of what we wear on our forehead on this day, either as a simple mark or in the sign of the cross. In a very particular and powerful way, we are identified in a phrase we hear from time to time, that is, as children of God – visibly for a day.
It will be an identity and an identification that we carry within us during the next period of forty days, long after the imposition of ash has been washed off with a splash of rain, a facecloth or in the shower. Why should we try to remember it and treasure it? I suggest because it can continue right throughout the lightening Season of Lent to be an inspiration and an invitation to try new things and to carry a new identity. Because Lent is imaginatively a period of wilderness wandering, it is not a time of perfection but of experimentation; it is a time of survival and of trying to do things carefully and positively, not a time of perfection. Yet it is a time of testing and of trial. Nor, again, is it a time of nothingness, otherwise we ourselves will not survive in the contemporary wilderness any more than would anyone else in the ancient wilderness. It is a time of activity. Jeremiah draws a picture of a very arid type of wilderness in chapter 17 verse 6: … He will live among the rocks in the wilderness, in a salt, uninhabited land… This we want to avoid as we move in and through the wilderness of Lent.
For those of us who decide to give Lent a go, it is not so much a question of remembering or forgetting what we have given up. It is more a question of a particular type of spiritual curiosity. We can follow this sort of curiosity in the hope of discovering what we had neither seen nor known before in ourselves, in others and in the environment to which we belong. And the challenge may now be that of accepting for a period of the year that life is in fact lived in a wilderness. This can lift
us out of ourselves and give us a new empathy with the people for whom this is life as they know it and experience it in its entirety in today’s world and climate.
So: Is Ash Wednesday a time to give up or to start up? Both, of course, can be argued cogently and rightly. Probably if we plan the second, the first will hold for a bit longer, however. Giving things up in a vacuum is a tough call and frequently very hard to sustain. Each of us can use and develop Lent as an opportunity to do both of these things in bite–sizes that we can manage from day to day and bring with us into Holy Week and Easter as gifts to God that we have grown throughout the Season of Lent.
The three key parts of Ash Wednesday are almsgiving, prayer and fasting. While given a particular focus in a Christian way of living, these three are common to all people of faith in precisely these terms. The challenge for all people of faith is that the key components of Ash Wednesday are shared across religions and still have their impact as motivations for change in all people of a societal conscience. The challenge and the opportunity are for us to help them to impact in our day and in a way that is consonant with what we read in St Matthew 6. There we are told to practise our piety, our principles and our actions, not in front of others, but in secret. Often we have heard of people who did not want to be seen, and indeed were not noticed by anyone, wrapping in a bus ticket or a piece of a newspaper a substantial donation to a charity and dropping it into a box or a bucket as people unknown to them collected on the street, more often than not around Christmas time. Nobody has any idea of the identity or the motivation of such a person. It is entirely private. It is the initiative of individual care and concern and gives a rather different slant to Lenten piety than the older picture of hurtful self–denial.
How do we use these forty days in a modern time when there is everything available 24/7 and when we know that the world never stops? How do we make a resolution for Lent have as much, or more,impact than a New Year Resolution? How do we avoid running into a wall of personal failure and concluding that this sort of thing simply is not for me after all and giving up? There is no one way of doing it but there are some connections that we can make. If you give something up, then please think of taking something else up. If you de–noise and spend less time on–screen, it will open your eyes and your ears to people and things that otherwise simply will pass you by. Take yourself seriously and look after yourself better by establishing a pattern of self–care. Continue to look out for someone else on a daily basis. Pray your way around your neighbourhood and around the world.Experiment with things like this and in this sort of way build up your own pattern of everyday religion with which you can feel both satisfied and happy. And remember that in the Collect for Ash Wednesday we are told fairly and squarely that God hates nothing that God has made – and that includes us:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may receive of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
It is never too late to give something ancient a try!
St Matthew 6.1: Jesus said to the crowds, ‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.’