Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Continuing Significance of Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday. This is the day that, from about the 4th Century, has been recognized as the beginning of the forty days of fasting and privations that Christians refer to as Lent. This leads up to Passion Week (you've seen the movie now read the book) and Easter. The whole period is still of deep significance for many Christians.

Fasting, the voluntary cutting off or reduction of food, for the sake of spiritual benefit, is part of the cycle of feast and fast that undergirds the historical understanding of Christianity. Easter, the celebration to which Lent builds, is about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and is, essentially, a celebration of triumph (God's and ours through Christ) over sin. But that is later.

Ash Wednesday in the liturgy (the daily and seasonal order of Church services) of the Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Churches (and a few Protestant Churches keep to a liturgical ritual as well) involves the "imposition of ashes" and reflection upon ones' sins.

During the Mass for Ash Wednesday the congregation goes forward and has the sign of the cross made in ashes on the forehead while the Priest calls us to consider the fragility of our lives and the need to acknowledge our sins. In the beautiful Latin the Priest would say: memento homo quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris ("remember Man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return"). This, of course, recalls the words of the funeral service itself: "ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

The ashes for the Ash Wednesday service come from the Palms of Palm Sunday before Easter where we recall the welcome of Jesus into Jerusalem and the crowds placing palms beneath him while they acclaimed him. Shortly thereafter, of course, the acclaim turned to denunciation and crucifixion so the burnt palms becoming the ashes for Ash Wednesday are, themselves, full of meaning.

There is no more beautiful set of interlocked understandings of the cycle of human life, longing, failure, suffering and redemption than are captured in the Christian liturgy. This is part of the reason why so much great art (painting, music, sculpture, poetry, literature) have been and continue to be inspired by these cycles and the stories they contain.

When we have lost the stories of this Christian cycle we have lost much of the deepest and most meaningful aspects of our own history. Watching young people examining paintings in major art galleries where they can no longer identify the most basic of Christian stories (such as the beheading of John the Baptist) shows how much is lost by what is not learnt because it is no longer told. There is much to be gained in the contemplation of all aspects of these ceremonies, by all ages of people no matter what their condition of mind or heart.

Some years ago, at Queens, one of my finest Professors, A.C. Hamilton, told me that one of the great problems with students (and this was almost twenty five years ago) was that they "no longer knew the bible." It was inconceivable to him that one could understand the great works of Western literature without the bible as background.

As a digression, that has nothing to do with the overall theme of this short piece, but is marginally related to it, I'd like to relate an incident that happened a few years ago, when we were in Lourdes, France. One of our young children, at the end of the Mass for Ash Wednesday, looked up and asked "Daddy, why do black people get white ashes and white people get black ashes." In all the years of attending Masses on this day I had never noticed what to this five year old was as obvious as it now is to me. We sometimes don't see things the way we later come to see them.

I remember, years before my wife and I were received into the Roman Catholic Church, how a few people would show up suddenly at the office one day after lunch with smudges on their foreheads. I knew then that it was vaguely connected with something at their Church. When the smudge was pointed out to them, they would quietly say it was connected with Ash Wednesday or even, on occasion, reach up a tentative hand to rub off the offending stain they had forgotten to remove on leaving the Church.

Thinking about this day and its significance today, however, it seems that another aspect of the passing of general social awareness of Christianity, is important to note. Many Christians have lost a sense of their own history - Ash Wednesday being a part of that. For all these things were aids to living out the Christian faith. Lent, sacrifice and fasting, urged us, along with confession, to see ourselves truly - - to do what is still called "an examination of conscience" and then move ahead, with God's help, to lead improved lives. The question is this.

What is the replacement offered by the contemporary world to these Christian insights? Other religions, of course, maintain their own feasts and fasts and conceptions of sin and wrongdoing and how to overcome them. But what of the brave new world we inhabit?

The 1970's gave us a film, starring Ali McGraw and Ryan O?Neal - - "Love Story", which became a kind of motif for a generation. One of the lines of that film, which has itself become famous, is "love means never having to say you are sorry." This is, of course, about as wrong as anything could be. Our generations have not only lost the richest stories, we have, all too often, replaced them with erroneous confusions.

Ash Wednesday, and the deepest meaning of it, recognizes that love is all about "saying sorry" so that we can learn, in fact, what love is. We can never properly feast if we do not learn how to fast and it is good that there are days set aside for reflections upon ashes.

Iain T. Benson ©