Today many of us will have ashes – the burnt remains of last year’s palms – smeared onto our foreheads, just as many biblical figures in times of mourning or crisis ‘covered their heads with ashes’. For children it is sacred fun, discovering new symbolism and enriching the vocabulary of their spiritual life. For older Christians it is a familiar ritual which brings home a little more sharply each year the reminder of mortality: ‘Remember, O Human, that you are dust and unto dust you will return.’ For most people in our secularised world it is only another incomprehensible remnant of an archaic religious world.
One way or another we like to mark special times and seasons. They are, of course, man-made. (Lent only began to be observed in the 4th century). But if our year is nothing but a flat landscape of weekdays, week-ends, business travel and vacations its two-dimensionality soon makes us yearn for the ‘something more’ that is our hard-wired religious sense. We many get by without religion but we cannot escape this yearning. And once felt, it seeks expression.
So enjoy the ashes. I remember as children we used to feel proud and special to keep our ashes ostentatiously displayed on the street or the tube. We looked around for others with the same mark and felt members of a secret or at least exclusive club. We had heard the words of Jesus during the service about fasting (having only one meal is also part of the Ash Wednesday requirement): ‘when you fast anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. (Mt 6:16)’ As children, however, learning religion by playing at it, it felt good to flaunt our asceticism. It made us feel different and maybe even a bit better.
Lent is an opportunity whose meaning we have to recognise before it can prove useful to us. Obviously it doesn’t mean drawing attention to ourselves. It does not mean deliberate self-induced pain or hardship any more than an athlete’s training is done to hurt. Lent is about improving our spiritual fitness and agility which is achieved by measures of chosen moderation, self-restraint and, with a little innovation, pushing further into the realm of consciousness.
If you haven’t decided what to ‘do for Lent’ yet, you might consider doing a three-fold practice: 1) giving up or reducing some form of consumption either food, drink or digital addiction 2) making your morning and evening meditation practice better or adding a midday stop 3) commit to a better rhythm of life and substitute an unnecessary distraction (of which most of us have several) for a creative and refreshing activity, whether physical, reading or musical.
The ‘secrecy’ Jesus advises challenges our culture of self-revelation (exposed by our cult of privacy and passwords). It refers not to secrecy, really, but to interiority and respecting the fact that most of the fruits of our coming Lent will be felt from within. May it be happy and even fun.