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Ash Wednesday 2021

The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…

There is something quite poignant about entering Lent during this time of pandemic. It is as if this year we do not dare retreat from the world rather we join the whole world on a sombre sojourn. We are experiencing a kind of enforced isolation; our normal means of socialising are severely restricted. The doors of so many of our usual haunts – shops, restaurants and bars, theatres, even churches and places of worship, stand firmly locked and people carry a certain angst as they pass us… at a careful distance of course. Behind the masks I fear many lament – though they would probably not recognise or use that term. But whatever label you give it they are aware of loss on so many levels: from the informal meeting with friends and family, the pain of bereavement, to a lack of hugs. We hardly need the church year to highlight that this is Lent. Not that there aren’t glimmers of hope, deep yearnings for better times and even hints at what could become a better ‘normal’, a kinder way of living and being together. But our present context makes sure we do not forget, or struggle to identify, that now it is (the appropriately named) ‘Ash Wednesday’ and the long haul to spring and Easter begins.

In his little book ‘Let us dream – the path to a better future’ Pope Francis advises us that,

‘We must not let our current clarifying moment pass us by.’

He talks eloquently and candidly about other ‘COVID moments’ in his own life. A time of severe illness that made him face his mortality, another time of enforced isolation of study far from home and loved ones and his now famous ‘Cordoba time’ when he had a forced exile and retreat following a crisis in his ministry. Each of these ‘COVID moments’ threw him off balance yet allowed him a chance to reconfigure, to recover memory, to redirect his future. He writes,

‘Crisis unmasks our vulnerability, exposes the false securities on which we had based our lives. It is a time for honest reflection, for owning our roots.’

He could have equally written that as a description of a holy Lent. The temptation of course is cut ourselves off from things that will disturb, provoke or demand of us. Sometimes even in Lent we try to fill every moment so as to distract us from any opportunity to use the space, or the released energy to reflect on our context or even begin to think about who we are and what we could be. Perhaps even more insidious in the church we set ourselves would be pious tasks – giving up a little comfort or enjoyment – so we can tick the Lenten box as done and dusted – with only a mild coating of ash.

Maybe this year the world is crying out to us ‘not to let the current clarifying moment pass us by!

I want to suggest to you – perhaps rather counter-intuitively – that Lent is not a time for digging in, putting your head down and waiting for the sombre moment to pass. It is not a time for playing victim by licking our wounds, staying stuck in a rut of ‘how sad’, or ‘how inadequate’ we tell ourselves we are. It should rather be a moment that gives us a fresh capacity to look into our own hearts, to see more clearly our world and ourselves, and (even if hesitantly) to summon the courage to see what needs to change, to cast off those idols that dominate our way of living, our way of seeing ourselves. Then it should be a time to choose and then to act and to be different. That is real repentance, real turning. Three simple gestures could inform our enforced space: A time to see, a time to choose and a time to act.

Forgive me being candid but take my advice this Lent, don’t waste your time on small (even if uncomfortable) gestures of self-discipline. Especially if in doing so you think somehow you will be come more holy. No instead make and use space, space to be prompted by the Spirit so that you can choose afresh to act for the Kingdom of God. Rekindling that vision and passion will turn the crisis into the greatest of opportunities for us, for our souls and for our common lives.

This is the real tradition of Lent that this ‘COVID-19 moment’ might be encouraging us to recover and experience.

Or as Pope Francis so beautifully describes it,

‘Our tradition is not a repository of ashes but the preservation of fire’.

Let us dream. The path to a better future. Pope Francis; Simon and Schuster; 2020