Thought for the week, 25th February; Ash Wednesday

We have just had Ash Wednesday, the less celebrated sibling of Shrove Tuesday. Shrove Tuesday is about eating pancakes, Ash Wednesday is payback day, at least in what was once popular imagination; the start of 40 days of self-denial. Traditionally, it is marked in churches by “ashing”; the priest marks the foreheads of those attending services with ashes. These are meant to be produced by burning palm crosses from the previous year; I may be unique in the Church of England in using laboratory-grade charcoal…. It does not seem to change the mood of the service, which is very reflective. As each person is daubed, the priest repeats the words, “From dust you came, to dust you return”. It is a sharp reminder of our mortality. In a recent Thought for the Day, Canon Angela Tilby made the point that it is also a reminder of our shared humanity; no matter how high or low, our bodies came from (effectively) nothing and will end as nothing. The Ash Wednesday service and the whole of Lent is about giving us space to reflect on this; a time to ponder our own spirituality, however that word is understood, and how it fits big questions of belonging and purpose. The Ash Wednesday service gives its own answers to these questions; the ashes are daubed in the form of a cross. Our beginning is in the love of God; the cross gives us confidence that the same love will be there for us at our end.