A fair few Christian eyebrows were raised this week when Pope Francis called upon the church and world to observe this coming Ash Wednesday as a day of prayer and fasting for the terrible situation in the Ukraine [see the letter below]. 'But, we already observe this as a day of fasting and prayer,' many were quick to point out … 'what does the Pope mean by asking us to do, what we already do?'
They aren’t wrong, in that Ash Wednesday, as a day of fasting and prayer, has been part of the Christian tradition for a very long time. In the early years of Christian Rome, it was the practice for penitents and grievous sinners to begin their period of public penance on the first day of Lent in preparation for their restoration to the sacrament of the Eucharist. They were sprinkled with ashes, dressed in sackcloth, and obliged to remain apart until they were reconciled with the Christian community on Maundy Thursday the Thursday before Easter.
When these practices fell into disuse around the 8th–10th century, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent was symbolized by placing ashes on the heads of the entire congregation. No longer just for the grievous sinners but the whole Christian people, recognising the sinfulness of the human heart that affects every single human person.
Ash Wednesday is a holy day of observance – for prayer and fasting to mark the very beginning of Lent, the six week period which brings us to Maundy Thursday and the Triduum – the three days of special liturgies which prepare us to meet again the Risen Lord at Easter.
This time of fasting, moderation and self discipline in prayer and reflection – reducing what we consume whilst increasing how we pray - was always a time of learning again what it means to rely upon God, to ask for God’s strength to control our desires and to learn how to manage our cravings and desires in this world. In the past this would be observed with similar fervour to that of the Muslims at Ramadan, just one simple meal to be eaten in the evening … but over time, and especially here in the West it has become much subtler; people might give up chocolate, give up swearing, give up television or social media.
Dare I say it, but Lent has taken something of a ‘self-help’ tone over recent decades. Perhaps, for some, become more about lifestyle than deepening our dependence upon God, or even transfiguring our ideas and perception of God for our world.
While I was at Synod last – before the wretched Covid brought me home early – our Archbishop made a very important speech in which he spoke movingly about how the pandemic has revealed to us that we are no longer individuals but connected to one another. That we depend and rely on one another, shown us that our actions do not ever exist in a vacuum but always affect another person. His words have resonated with me greatly and especially this week.
The war in the Ukraine has troubled many of us – moreso perhaps than other, equally terrible wars that have taken place in recent decades. Perhaps it is because our connectedness is higlighted by wearing the same clothes, living in similar buildings, and living in the same continent. All of which has made it seem much closer, much more connected, more difficult to distance ourselves from. Equally, the implications of the escalating tensions have also revealed how our systems, structures and social networks are all woven into one another; the SWIFT payment can’t be easily sanctioned because it is so intimately connected with so many other layers of life. The web of our connectivity with other human beings is revealed in all its complexity. We are connected to our brothers and sisters in the Ukraine, in Russia, and across the globe in ways that are extraordinary. Not just in the physical or technological realm – but also in the metaphysical and spiritual.
Which brings me back to Pope Francis call upon us all to observe Ash Wednesday as a day of fasting and prayer for peace and the Ukraine. His call presents an urgent challenge for us to reframe our understanding of Lent and her disciplines. Instead of Lent being about you or me as an individual deepening my or our faith or practice – I and we are being asked to practice on behalf of the world, on behalf of our fellow human beings. By peacefully controlling the matter of which I am made, by exercising self control over desire and greed, by entering into a greater and deeper reliance upon God … I am asking God to do the same with the world in which I live, the world which is at war, the hurting and painful world ... that we ache to be better at turning towards God and the good, away from the evil we are witnessing right now.
What difference will it make to understand that this Lent offers to us a journey on behalf of the world, not just ourselves? Perhaps we draw back in order to then see the transfiguration of our world into something more akin to the Kingdom, to see the face of God in people and places we haven’t previously considered or even to ask that the changing of our mortal matter will prefigure and demonstrate the changing of mortal matter elsewhere. The repentance and lament of Lent isn’t a dry duty symbolised by sackcloth and ashes – it is the genuien call on the things of the world to turn back, the metanoia, the humble acceptance of our frailty and offering it back to the transformative grace of God – for him to transform, to shape and to transfigure in the way that only he can.
I do hope that we will all hear Pope Francis’ call upon us as the Body of Christ on Ash Wednesday. A call which asks us to set aside ourselves, to offer our world back to God, for his redemption, his love and his peace to prevail. As Pope Francis writes 'we should respond to the diabolic senselessness of violence, with the weapons of God, with prayer and fasting'. Rev'd Arwen Folkes
Ash Wednesday Services in this Benefice:
10am - Eucharist with Imposition of the Ashes St Andrew's March 2nd 10.30am - Eucharist with Imposition of the Ashes St Peter's March 2nd 5.30pm - Evening Prayer with the Litany St Andrew's March 2nd 7pm - Sung Eucharist witj Imposition of the Ashes St Peter's March 2nd.