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15 February 2018

Valentine's Ash Wednesday

Valentine's Ash Wednesday

Seconds before the land law lecture started, I looked up to see my friend squeezing down the row of already occupied fold-down chairs towards me. As always late, smiling and leaving a wake of benign chaos. About to add to the fuss, I started to whisper that she had a black smudge on her face when I noticed someone else had one too. 

Black ash, dust, burnt remains. Smeared onto skin in the shape of a cross.  

Through the rest of the lecture she explained the practice to me in whispered conversation. Far from a mistake it was a deliberate act of public witness. Worn on the forehead, front and centre. 

Growing up in Northern Ireland, it took me 18 years to see someone practising this tradition, never mind make friends with them. Here the practice is usually associated with the Catholic Church, but across the world today, many Protestant Christians will also willingly receive the mark of the cross. The physical representing the spiritual.  

The traditional words spoken over a person by the priest or pastor while making the mark in ashes are either, 'Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return', based on Genesis 3:19 or, 'Repent and believe the gospel' based on Jesus' words in Mark 1:15. Our immortality and need of repentance linked to the eternal life of the gospel. 

This connection between dust, ashes and repentance is threaded through the Bible story. Job said explicitly 'I repent in dust and ashes' (Job 42:6). The practice was further associated with mourning and fasting. Daniel said, 'So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.' (Daniel 9:3) 

Ian Paisley caused a stir by using this biblical language just before the IRA decommissioning saying, 'The IRA should wear sackcloth and ashes...until the sackcloth and ashes wear out.' When dealing with the past in Northern Ireland most people agree that the past needs to be 'acknowledged'. But acknowledgement will only take us so far. In my view, trying to build new relationships without repentance on all sides from wrongful acts and attitudes is like placing a sticking plaster over cancer. 

This week we’ve also celebrated St. Valentine’s day which tends to be marked in our culture through an exercise in consumerism. A day focusing on romantic love is good but fails often to push many to consider the depth of love Jesus spoke of in the gospels. This love was real and robust, controversial at times too. It’s easy to love our friends and family, well most of the time, but it’s much harder to show love, grace and mercy to our neighbours and enemies.  

In our political culture today “repentance” sounds like a word from a foreign language. Wrongs, if acknowledged at all, are stage-managed by public relations specialists. Blame is a game of political pass the parcel. Love sounds out of place in politics, too fluffy and nice. We cannot easily conceive of a political grace or love which would give that which was not deserved, or put others before ourselves. 

If moves towards repentance for violent actions, sectarian behaviors and prideful attitudes are not part of the current talks then I wonder how much progress will ultimately be made. If love and grace are not shaping the tone and context of the conversation at some level, then I wonder how relationships will last the inevitable tests to come. 

So we move from the political and the public to the personal. True repentance and true love cuts to the heart. In Psalm 51, King David’s love for the Lord means that he is devastated by his own sin. He cries out to God, 'Blot out my transgressions, wash me thoroughly from my inequity and cleanse me from my sin....you delight in truth in the inward being....create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me.' He knows that the sacrifice God desires from him is not another pile of ashes or 'burnt offering', but 'a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.' 

Today, as Valentine’s falls on the first day of Lent we consider that loving God, our neighbour, even our enemies, means dwelling in the call to repentance. This can be sobering, offensive and controversial. An ashen cross branded on human temple-skin is subversive. It bears witness to another king and another kingdom and ultimately points forward to new life rising from the dust of death, the true love message of Jesus and Easter.