Wednesday, March 09, 2011

On being ashed in thin places

Tonight I wandered to my local church to participate in it's ashing service. This ceremony, by which burnt remains of palm crosses are daubed on peoples foreheads, is one of the more ritualistic elements of the liturgical year and focuses our minds on our ultimate death with a reminder that we will all return to dust.... As I sat and heard bible readings, about pride and burnt offerings, I was reminded about the importance of the service and ritual. My faith, like that of Angela Shire-Jones, is one founded on an exploration and promotion of god's unending love for all. However, unlike her reflection on the day, I view Ash Wednesday as pivotal to the life-affirming, life enhancing gospel we both seek to share. The liberating message of God's love for all was clearly demonstrated through the life of Jesus. People who society rejected were engaged with, those who society upheld were challenged. The social whirlwind of Jesus made clear god's love is for all, but his message will challenge us all. What link does this have with Ash Wednesday? Well, consider what is daubed on the forehead. An ash cross made from last-year's palm cross. Why does this matter? Because the palm crosses used to remind us of Jesus crucifixion are the very same as the ones used to welcome him as king on Palm Sunday. For me, ash Wednesday is a chance for corporate penitence over the fickleness of humanity. One needs only to look in a newspaper to see a man once hailed as king now international pariah. Sound familure? I want to be ashed. I want to be reminded. I want to face my own mortality. I want to do this because I dedicate every waking breath to building god's kingdom of justice, peace and equality. I do this knowing the whole experience is a journey through which all can know God better. However, all journeys have mistakes. Humanities heralding of jesus as saviour one week, before turning him in as a criminal the next, is the ultimate reminder. no matter how holy we may try to be, we'll all make dreadful mistakes. Mistakes that are only rectified when we take the first step and say sorry.


  1. My sentiments echo yours. And I'm glad British Methodism is broad enough to encompass different understandings.

  2. John,
    I am genuinely delighted that you are able to find life-affirmation in this rite. It feels somewhat different for someone who has to impose the ashes. It's history of priestly control over who is in and who is out of the Church (and remember no salvation exists outside of the Church for those who began this rite!) makes it challenging in the extreme to those who hold to a theology of grace.
    I humbly submit that you have rewritten the service mentally - as much as I did actually. I would also want you to reflect on whether anyone can really 'face their own mortality' whilst sitting in the warmth and comfort of a liturgical service?
    Ask those who are about die about whether they want water and oil - or ashes.
    What hope does the service offer in its damning words
    'remember you are dust and to dust you shall return; repent and believe the good news' WHAT good news? Oh yes.. that I am dust and to dust I will return?

    I do not believe I have the answer - but I believe asking the question is crucial - WWJD?