Vicar's Musings for Lent 1
17 February, 2013
The Vicar's Warden, John Taaff, is sadly in hospital at the moment but his humour is well and truly intact. When I rang him to see how the operation on his foot went he said it was fine and in the next breath told me a story. One of the young orderlies was commenting on the ashen crosses on people's foreheads, "What is it with all these crosses that everyone has on their head today?" John replied, "It is Ash Wednesday." The man paused for a moment, "O right, Ash Wednesday, that was a terrible bush fire. Do you know, I actually fought in the bushfires on Ash Thursday?" John didn't want to embarrass the young man, but inside he was chuckling at the misunderstanding. Wednesday 16th February 1983 was of course a terrible day when 47 people lost their lives and more than 27,000 stock and 2,000 houses were destroyed. But for 2.2 billion people, about a third of the world's population, Ash Wednesday has a very different meaning.
The practice of dusting oneself with ashes has long been a means of expressing sorrow for ones sins and failings. In the book of Job, considered by scholars to be one of the oldest books in the Bible, Job says to God (42:5-6): "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes." As Christians we draw on this ancient Hebrew tradition, and start the season of Lent with a day of reflection and penitence. The dramatic physicality of such practices is profoundly important, not just spiritually, but also at the material level of human wellbeing. Alain de Botton in his book Religion for Atheists (2012) notes (p. 201):
Among the cannier initiatives of religion, then, has been the provision of regular souvenirs of the transcendent, at morning prayer and the weekly service, at the harvest festival and the baptism, on Yom Kippur and on Palm Sunday [and, we might add, on Ash Wednesday]. The secular world is lacking an equivalent cycle of moments during which we, too, might be prodded to imaginatively step out of the earthly city and recalibrate our lives according to a larger and more cosmic set of measurements.
Christian evangelism is probably not the goal of de Botton's writing, but ironically I spoke recently to someone who has started attending church as a direct result of reading his book. Religion has something pretty significant to offer humanity and in this age of secularism we undoubtedly run the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
In the opening chapter of Rowan Williams' book Faith in the Public Square (2012), provocatively entitled "Has secularism failed?" the former Archbishop of Canterbury argues that the systematic attempts of secular society to relegate religion to the private sphere has in fact fostered the religious fundamentalism that it so abhors (p. 16):
Secularism fails to sustain the imaginative life and so can be said to fail: its failure may (does) produce a fascination with the 'spiritual'. But its very pervasiveness in the first place means that this spiritual dimension is likely to be conceived in consumerist terms — either in the individualized functionalism of much New Age spirituality or in the corporate problem-solving strategies of neo-conservative religion. Secularism and fundamentalism feed off each other.
So, whether you are of strong faith, fledgling faith, or no faith I do encourage you to step out of the earthly city and recalibrate your life this Lent.
The Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster
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