Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Reply to "A Well Meant Lent": Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Penny Phillips-Devaney, Director of Newman House, offers a reflection on Lent in response to Andrew Duncan's post.

What will I give up for Lent this year?  Is Lent just about giving things up?  And if I give up something, is it just as a test or a trial?  Or is there a deeper purpose to the fasting, abstaining and almsgiving we are recommended to practice during the six weeks? 

This year, I have found more than ever that Ash Wednesday has set the tone for Lent:  “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” 

I am much nearer, in all probability, to the time when I shall return unto dust than Andrew, or indeed most people who are reading this!  But for everyone, Ash Wednesday can be a profound moment when we stop and remember that all our materialistic striving, ambition, drive towards pleasure and achievement, will one day come to an end, and not by our own choice.  And then what?

How do we prepare for that eventuality?  What does it mean in terms of how I see my life now while it still seems to stretch far out in front of me?  Is God waiting for me at the end or with me now?  Am I here, alive to the call of the present, or stuck in some time or setting of my own imagining?  Am I walking with God this moment, every moment, aware of the reality that is death and the gift that is life?

Lent ends, as Andrew so rightly says, in victory – the victory of the Resurrection (and also in Easter eggs!).  But before the glory of Easter Sunday - and unfeasible amounts of chocolate - there is the Cross.

This Lent has started with the terrible disaster in Japan, our televisions and newspapers filled with pictures of human suffering on a horrific scale.  We cannot escape it, the fact of death and loss, the lack of human control over natural events all too painfully evident. 

In Lent, we set ourselves personal challenges in order to focus our minds, to re-direct our thoughts, to reflect and to prepare.  But on Ash Wednesday, we are not alone as we go to receive our ashes.  Lent can also remind us that this business of life and death is not purely personal.  We are all in it together. 

How do I acknowledge that truth in my faith, in my relationship to God and to others, in my everyday living?  What helps me to do this and what in me and outside me hinders my open-ness to God, my ability to love and be loved?  

Giving things up, taking on extra spiritual practices, these are traditional ways of observing the six weeks of Lent.  But the ashes we receive at its outset are a great and humble symbol that sets it all in perspective, giving us the opportunity to look at life differently and more deeply, and to emerge at the other end transformed. 

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