‘If anyone saw us now they would think we were bonkers.’
These words were whispered to me as I stood in the queue at Cuddesdon theological college, by my friend Big Nick, as we waited in the aisle of the village church for ashing. He had a point, there we were a group of fresh, and not so fresh faced ordinands, dressed in white cassock-albs, waiting for a priest to mark our foreheads with ash. When you stop to think about being ashed is not normal; in fact it's very odd.
Or, at least it's odd by the standards of the world. Ash Wednesday, I would want to suggest, sees the church at her most counter-cultural. The words ‘from ash you have come and to ash you shall return,’ are words that stand contrary to the myth of the self-made, independent, destiny deciding, write your own script story, perpetuated in contemporary culture. Ash Wednesday in crucial ways reminds us that we are not ultimately in charge, and worst still that death is the great equaliser, for it is an ultimate and unarguable truth that ‘to ash’ we shall all ‘return.’ Ash Wednesday, far from being bonkers, even though the ritual of ashing looks bonkers, is a call to embrace the ultimate truth; that ‘to ash’ we shall ‘return,’ as equals. To fully accept that we have come from ash and shall return to ash, is, I would want to argue, to be graced by humility.
Humility is the greatest of liberators. If God is in charge, if there is literally nothing that I can do to prevent the reality that one day I will return to ash, then perhaps I can learn to stop striving quite so hard; perhaps you can learn to stop striving so hard? What I am referring to is, of course, the sense that we need to strive to impress, so that we can be well thought of and liked. Wouldn’t it be far better, not only for ourselves, but also for others, if we simply learnt to accept ourselves as we are before God? We would presumably be so much happier? Ash Wednesday and Lent beckon us into the ever deeper levels of humility; the consequence, or fruit, of which is very possibly greater levels of contentment and happiness. And that truly is a counter-cultural thought! The world wants you and me to believe that happiness and contentment are purchased through acquisition, self-development and status, Christianity says, ‘rubbish it starts with humility.’
If it, the journey to contentment and happiness, starts with humility, then it is built through a commitment to holiness. Today’s gospel reading repeatedly makes this point: ‘whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret,’ (Matthew 6, 6) and ‘whenever you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your father who is in secret,’ (Matthew 6, 17-18). To pray silently, alone, before the Father is to exercise holiness. To pray silently and in a spirit of humility has the effect of bringing us closer to the ultimate reality that the only view of us that really counts, at the end of the day, when we are but ash, is God’s. It really doesn’t matter if anyone else thinks we are ‘bonkers,’ for ultimately it is only God’s view that counts.
Surely, whatever the world says, it is this level of knowledge, this depth of knowledge, that is the only true source of happiness and contentment?
Lent is often, and correctly, referred to as a penitential season, but the paradox is this; if engaged with in a spirit of humility, and with a commitment to growth in holiness the consequence could well be increased stocks of liberation, freedom, and, dare I say it, happiness. Let’s go ‘bonkers’ this Lent!