Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent falls on February 14th. On that day we will receive the sign of the Cross in Ash, and begin a journey of preparation with Our Lord that will take us into Holy Week, and the Church’s celebration of Easter Day, on Sunday April 1st. A season that originally developed as the principal time of preparation both for Baptism, and for the Reconciliation of those who had been excluded from the Church’s fellowship for serious faults, is now God’s healing time, an opportunity to turn back to him. The characteristic notes of the season are self-examination, penitence, self-denial, study and preparation for Easter, for walking with Our Lord on the way of the Cross, to the joy of the empty Tomb.
Apart from Mothering Sunday, Churches are kept bare of flowers and decoration. The Gloria and the cry, Alleluia, are not usually used in worship, not simply out of a spirit of restraint, but so that we can look forward to the joyful restoration of these expressions of praise on Easter Sunday. In some parts of the world, Churches mark the ceremony of the burial of the Alleluia on the Sunday before Lent, either processing an Alleluia Banner out of Church, or placing an illuminated scroll bearing the musical notation in a box that is then opened once more on Easter Day. Our own Hymns for that Sunday will give plenty of opportunity for the final liturgical use of Alleluia before Lent begins.
This year’s Ash will be made by burning last year’s Palm Crosses. It is helpful to link Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday in this way. Palm Sunday might also be called ‘Irony Sunday,’ because the same crowds that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem call for his crucifixion five days later. The ash of Ash Wednesday on our forehead isn’t just a reminder of our mortality, but also a reminder of the contradictions of Holy Week. On day one of Lent, the season calls into question the Christian’s devotion and piety, taking the memory of last year’s joyous celebration and quite literally rubbing it in our faces. It is a tangible symbol of the weakness of our spirituality: one moment a blaze of glory, the next without trace of burning ember.
Apart from God’s grace my faith is fickle; would I too have both welcomed Jesus and called for his crucifixion? Whatever questions Lent raises about religious discipline, the nature of faith, the problem of evil, the ashes confirm that the answer isn’t going to be found within me, but only with God.
May God Bless us, in keeping a good and a holy Lent