Ash Wednesday commences the Christian celebration of Lent. The ash from symbolic palm crosses burnt during last years ‘Palm Sunday’, which is the Sunday before Easter. It celebrates Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem, being hailed as the Jewish King prophesied in Zechariah 9:9:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
There is a multilayered symbolism here. Firstly Jesus enters as a King in triumph and the crowds hail him as such. This is the Messiah come to free them, they believe, from Roman occupation. They are ecstatic, the sweet aroma of revolution hanging in the air and their celebration echoes this. The descent from the Mount of Olives is specifically symbolic of that Kingship and of course, just before the feast of the Passover, Caesars representative, Pontius Pilate, is entering Jerusalem in the opposite direction to symbolise Roman supremacy and the handover of the Jewish sacred robes to their high priest. Any moment and the revolt against Rome would commence.
Yet Jesus, as foretold, rides a colt, a donkey, coming not as a conquering King but in peace, the symbolic King of peace. It is no wonder that the disappointment led to people who were there wishing him harm and of course that was evidenced at his later trial. So Lent commences with the ashes of that victory celebration, burnt ashes from last years Palm Sunday.
Lent itself may appear to have many connections with other spiritual observances. It is a form of mindfulness, appearing to look inwards to look at our faults, our errors, our weakness and lay these out before God. It is a spiritual preparation for the celebration of Holy Week which denotes Jesus’s walk towards his crucifixion, death and then the most outrageous claim of all, the possibility of something beyond death that allowed his resurrection, his return. It uses abstinence, meditation and familiar forms of spirituality, including chanting and prayer, to achieve a mediative state. It is easy to see why people in our plural societies see a connection with eastern mindfulness, mysticism and philosophy.
However Christianity differs in one remarkable manner, for whilst it looks inwardly to inspect ourselves, it doesn’t aspire inwardly. The highest point of consciousness with inward mindfulness has to be limited by our own ability, our own capability, by its very nature that has to be true. It is certainly true that we are amazing creatures and that there is much good in taking this initial spiritual step. Christian mindfulness reaches above ourselves, it reaches towards a divine creator, something beyond comprehension, therefore offering the possibility of transformational outcomes, beyond our innate ability and control. It is here that the Christian faith has something unique, for it is not just a philosophy nor a belief system, it is a relationship. It is a relationship that is given as a gift, not from a priest or another human being but from God. It can’t be sold to you, it can’t be forced upon you, and it can’t be assured, although I have yet to come across somebody who has taken the leap to ask for it, where it hasn’t been offered. If it is offered and accepted then it becomes transformational and the symbol of that for me is a simple blessing, with some of last years ash, quickly smeared upon ones forehead.
Thus we started today with our vicar, Oliver Ross, suitably garbed, offering to bless folk quickly on their way to work. As it was raining Stella from the Abbey Cafe had kindly brought along some coffee and so folk were able to simply grab a free coffee and go or dally for a brief moment, grab a coffee and / or receive a blessing with the quick sign of the cross. It was fun, it was humorous but it was also hugely symbolic and absolutely serious.
In the hour or so we were there only one person was rude although several were immensely suspicious and walked circuitous routes to avoid eye contact. Given that this was a blessing, a coffee or both I am not quite sure what their concerns were but of course folk are wary of the unknown. We had lots of conversations regarding what Ash Wednesday meant, about Lent etc and on the whole most people were friendly and polite. The high point for me though was someone I know stopping whom has no formal faith. He asked if it was ok to receive a blessing when he didn’t believe and of course it was. He then stopped to chat and we covered every aspect of various things connected with faith, belief, religion and spirituality, from his point of view, in a wide ranging and engaging way. It was a genuinely interesting conversation lasting nearly an hour and it made my morning. The chap concerned has promised to write his side of it for this blog so we will post it here when he has time to do that.
Folk wishing to engage and pray for us during Lent please consider using this link as our friends at Disability and Jesus are hosting a daily office for those unable, for whatever reason, to physically join us over the next six weeks.