on Ash Wednesday

“Lent is supposed to be a time when we review our spiritual life, think again about what it means to be a follower of Christ, reset the compass of our discipleship and prepare ourselves to celebrate the Easter festival. But often we just give up biscuits” (Stephen Cottrell, I Thirst, p. 12)


Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, which is the forty day period leading up to Easter. In the UK, lent is generally understood as that time which starts by overindulging yourself with pancakes and then giving up chocolate, coffee or facebook (or all of the above) to greater or lesser success for forty days.

We didn’t observe Lent much growing up. Giving up things happened occasionally, and I guess our church probably taught on it, though I don’t remember anything particularly interesting. I do remember that the church would not have any flowers in it for the forty days which always struck me as rather sad since the most beautiful flowers were generally blooming outside at the same time.

The last couple of years I have grown to appreciate Lent much more, mostly due to reading some brilliant explanations of what this time is truly intended to be.

I understand it now as an opportunity to simplify life, to free myself from self.obsession and self-focus and instead refocus on what is important, on my faith, whether the things I say I believe are truly acted out in my life. I found it fascinating to realise that Lent is supposed to be good for the body and the soul – we don’t label something “spiritual” and set it aside, but we instead rediscover the true value of life, framed by a fresh vision of God’s love.

Tonight I will go to the English Ash Wednesday service in the Anglican church here. Often as part of traditional services today, your forehead is marked with ashes, and these words are spoken over you: “Remember that you are but dust: from dust you came and to dust you shall return. Turn from sin and be faithful to Christ.”

It’s something we naturally turn away from, but at the core of this season is a call to remember that I am not immortal. There will come a time when I will die. Whether it comes tragically, through illness or peacefully at an old age, will I have lived to the full all of the life that was given to me or will I have squandered it away?

One of the songs of the Bible has a line which reads “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him, for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” It’s about love. It’s always been about love. He, the one who created us from the dust, created us in his own image, to be like him.

We’re made of mud and we are not immortal, but we were created in love by a God who has compassion on us and who has a plan for us. Finding ways to remind ourselves of this is the heart of Lent.

Others are writing more beautifully and succinctly about Lent this week, and if you’re interested, you should head their way to read:

  • She Ponders: Fasting – Kelley writes a challenging post on them emptiness of spiritual rituals if we’re not doing the daily work of loving our neighbour and pursuing justice.
  • Transfiguration and Beauty – Micha writes about needing the majesty to appreciate the sacrifice: “If we go into Lent demanding sacrifice of ourselves but lacking any vision of Christ’s beauty, we miss the miracle.”
  • Maggi Dawn has some posts from previous years that I loved then and still appreciate now: Just (don’t) try harder on being relieved of the need to achieve more and feel worthy; and the poignant Ashes to Ashes post, on finding something to celebrate, even in the hard months.
  • And another old post from Sarah Bessey, last year: In which these are the days, a reminder that there is meaning and hope even when life feels chaotic. “These are the days when ritual and liturgy shape my life but sometimes the rituals are breakfast preparation and getting dressed and the liturgy is in the retelling of “The Three Little Pigs”