Growing up in East Belfast in the 1960’s and 70’s, Ash Wednesday was one of those times when what was understood in a knowing sort of way became acknowledged by the simple application of a visible mark to the forehead. The dark smudge which began to appear on growing numbers from late morning was as clear an indicator as possible that someone was a Catholic. It was what happened in chapels and not churches, a sign of something religious we Presbyterians didn’t care for.
We enjoyed the pancakes the day before of course. There was some sort of talk about what had to be given up – chocolate, sweets, drink! Lurking in the background there was suspicion of some of the Church of Ireland types, who were meant to be Protestant, but they too could be seen with the dark smudge. Might as well be Catholics, a comment that I now realise many of my Anglican friends would have taken as a great compliment!
It was somewhat special therefore when the first formal service of worship in a Catholic (Roman that is!) Church that I fully took part in, apart from attending to observe, was an Ash Wednesday service when I too received the smudge. It was 1993 and I was 34.
Clonard Monastery in the heart of West Belfast as the guest of my friend Father Gerry Reynolds where I was spending time getting to know its Redemptorist community better as part of my induction to my new job as Cross Community Co-ordinator at Belfast YMCA.
“From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. Turn from sin and be faithful to Christ.”
Powerful sobering words. Some of my Ulster Protestant friends would no doubt question the last injunction, indeed would believe I was doing the opposite. Yet this short and simple act marked a major step on my journey of faith in community with those of a tradition I had been brought up to suspect of such grave heresy that it no longer bore the authentic marks of church.
That journey began with another simple act. Lighting a candle as a conscious act of worship in a Coptic Orthodox church on the banks of the River Nile in Cairo. That was in 1988 in response to an amazing set of Coptic Icons painted by one of the first western women to have officially studied as a Coptic iconographer. This church was at the site where the holy family was said to have landed on their journey into Egypt.
Since coming to Coventry Cathedral I have now received ashes on each of the three years I have been here for the beginning of Lent. The first was in Claremont Parish in Cape Town, just before being taken on pilgrimage by the team at St George’s Cathedral to their chapel on Robben Island.
Ash Wednesday has rich associations for me. So in the stillness of the service I reflected on the journey that it represented; of personal faith, for the people of Northern Ireland and South Africa and today for a journey begun for the people of Egypt. And I wondered if it is often the church with our sensitivities over doctrine and desire to impose ecclesiastical authority and order, that too easily fails to see the radical nature of the journey that Lent calls us to.
Listening tonight to Allegri’s Miserere Mei I was struck afresh by the phrase the Imposition of the Ashes. Quite an evocative term, but resonant with the fact that we need to be forcefully reminded of sin in all its complexity to get us to stop, take note and begin the journey of renewal.