I have to admit when I hear of the approach of Ash Wednesday it feels like an impending doom. For whatever reason, maybe a hangover from childhood it always struck me a joyless occasion when you felt the weight of human misery, weakness and sin. It’s a day like no other when we’re challenged to approach life in a slightly different manner. Looking back my main concern was always what will I deny myself for the six weeks of Lent?
When you listen to the children in the schools the most popular options are sweets, chocolate, lemonade, crisps, chips and various other sugar filled and artificially enhanced luxuries.
Through previous Lenten fasts I have abstained from sugar in my tea, eating chocolate, sweets, and deserts. Sometimes you looked for something very obscure thinking it would be easier because it really wouldn’t have an impact on my day to day routine. One year I thought about going off eating brussel spouts!
In previous campaigns I have refrained from watching television, playing games consoles and usually every year I abstain from alcohol. This year I was thinking about doing something different, like Fr Canny I could take a break from playing football although those who have seen me on the pitch would argue how it wouldn’t be necessary.
If I was pushing the boat out I might stop singing for six weeks in the hope it would rub off on some of my colleagues. If I was in a more positive frame of mind I could do something constructive and beneficial which would enhance the lives of those around me. I was thinking about going on another diet or sponsored slim, however when I tried to contact Fr McCaughey he was nowhere to be found, although I’ll wait until the next time he calls to sell tickets. All in all I must confess Lent suddenly appeared on the horizon like a dark rain cloud because I realised it was going to interrupt my routine and have an impact upon my social life.
Thankfully every cloud has a silver lining and on Ash Wednesday you don’t have to look far for consolation and a little bit of amusement. When it comes to the distribution of Ashes I have to say I generally enjoy the experience apart from the repetitive thumb injury and the minor detail that every time you wash your hands thinking you’re finished someone else wanders in off the street.
The popularity of receiving Ashes has many origins and often it’s the small gestures which speak to people the most. For some people it’s a question of identity, for others it’s a public way to mark the beginning of Lent.
Often the lines of superstition and faith can become blurred and the waters muddied. I try not to discriminate when it comes to the signing people with a cross of ashes. Although I was honest and warned any Manchester United supporters if they were looking for a small cross they may see one of the other priests. In an act of charity I gave many a man a hair line who hadn’t see one in years!
Much of the debate concerning Lent this year has focused on the health benefits, dieting and cutting down on alcohol have been the focus on many people’s discussions.
Despite the fringe benefits Lent has to be a spiritual experience which touches our hearts and souls.
The reason we celebrate this season of penance is to renew and strengthen our relationship with God. Lent from its origins was understood as the springtime of our spiritual life as Christians.
It is a period when we prune and cut back all the dead wood from our lives to allow for new growth. Above all it is an opportune time when we can begin again and renew our relationship with God and with one another. During Lent we celebrate God’s mercy and forgiveness. The message is very simple, if only we would turn our hearts back towards God asking for the grace and strength to walk once more along the path of discipleship which brings life and light. Only in this way can we prepare for the central mystery of our faith.
To celebrate the season of Lent seriously requires honesty, being to look at our lives which are marked by the tension between light and darkness, sin and virtue, good and evil.
Only by examining and recognising our struggles can we learn to bring before God our heartfelt prayers asking for the strength we need to walk in his way.
During this first week of Lent we hear the cry of Jesus calling us, repent and believe the good news, the kingdom of God is near at hand. Where are we in relation to God’s kingdom are we in the inside or the outside.
So as we prepare for the six weeks of fasting, prayer and charity, instead of just counting units and calories may we concentrate on listening to God’s voice calling us back from the wilderness to the gift of new life.