Ash Wednesday: The Ashes of our Crosses

There are too many Swastikas around nowadays.

I never thought I’d need to say that; I grew up at a time when Nazi iconography was frowned upon, so seeing the resurgence of the Swastika as a symbol of white nationalism and hate is a shocking reminder that these things never really got away, they just get rebranded.

My instinct is to fight back, to deploy a better symbol aso a gesture of defiance and hope. As a Christian, that means the Cross, but something stopped me from blithely suggesting we all bring out our crucifixes. Because, blasphemous as this is, we’ve made our symbol of love and grace, hope and redemption into something problematic. The KKK used burning crosses as an act of terror; now branches of the church are complicit with politics and attitudes that actively destroy lives. In doing that we’ve turned the cross into a mechanism, a banner, something to get us into heaven, something to march under so we can be sure we’re comfortable before we get there. The idolatry of our anger and fear conspire to turn the Cross into a heresy of terror.

I’m scared we’ve neutered our greatest symbol. I’m scared people see our cross as yet another form of oppression.

So. Ash Wednesday.

Traditionally this year’s ashes come from the burning of palm crosses blessed in the previous twelve months. Even this is a picture of resurrection – there are ashes today, but Easter’s coming soon. And I can’t help but think that, this year at least, we need to let our use and understanding of the Cross pass through the fire.

We need to repent.

We need to face up to the ways in which we’ve co-opted Jesus and his cross into our culture wars.

We need to ask forgiveness of everyone we’ve driven away from God

Many churches now do public Ash Wednesday services where anyone can receive the ashes on their forehead. But wouldn’t this be a great time to wear the ashes ourselves as a public act of repentance for the sins and the mistakes of the church? To start rebuilding a few bridges into the communities we’ve marginalised?

Sometimes the most powerful outeach starts with a “sorry”.

The Cross was once a means of humiliation and execution, but it was transformed by Christ into a symbol of love and grace, and when we lose that we’re just another Empire. The “foolishness” of the Cross isn’t intrinsic, it’s granted by the transformative sacrifice of Jesus. Lose that, lose the love and grace, lose Jesus and the Cross becones nothing. The Church becomes nothing.

Ash Wednesday is a time to confront our past, our mortality, our mistakes, our sin. In a world where Swastikas and their ideology are resurgent, we need to utterly reject our silence, our apathy, our tacit support, rejecting the politically symbol we’ve made of the Cross and rediscover the true love and mercy and justice of Calvary.

Let us reclaim Christ’s Cross and, in doing so, pray for redemption, for transformation, for the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to come.

(This is part of a conversation which started, I guess, here.)

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Ashes on the Church Door: Ash Wednesday 2015 (Psalm 51)

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Ash Wednesday’s one of those Christian traditions that’s always been a bit alien to me. It’s not a ritual I’ve ever been involved in; maybe actively so as I’d much rather focus on the grace of God than the sin of Matt.

Don’t get me wrong: I know I’m far from perfect. But I like my penitence to be private,  thank you very much; I’m not keen on sackcloth and ashes, and I have no idea how King David had the guts to write something as raw and confessional as Psalm 51.

Hypocrisy? Probably.

There’s the question of corporate repentance. A lot of people have been hurt by the church – through unChristlike attitudes, through the abuse of power, through shaming and shunning. And while it’s tempting to shake our heads and mutter “Not all Christians!”, the fact is we’re one body and we need to acknowledge where that body’s gone wrong.

So maybe that’s a role for Ash Wednesday. Individual repentance, ashes smeared on the forehead, is fine, but maybe we need to smear some ashes on the door posts of our churches too. It could also be an act of humility too – the church has wielded so much temporal power that it’s always good to pause and remember that we’re not perfect, we have fallen short of the glory, that our true power comes from the Holy Spirit, and that our organisations are just as much in need of God’s grace as our individual lives. Today’s ashes are last year’s palm branches of praise, which is a good reminder that our failings and our worship aren’t that far apart.

Because the fact is this: I can’t throw the Church under the bus. Denominations need to change, some organisations need to fall, but the church as the body of believers remains. I can’t walk away from that body as a whole.

But then we’re back to individual repentance. Preachers are fond of saying that the church isn’t buildings but people, so there we have it: Don’t spread hate instead of love. Don’t fiddle the accounts. Don’t abuse children, or cover up that abuse. Don’t get drunk on power. These things need to be confronted, dragged into the light, brought to justice.

And yet the ultimate message of Easter is resurrection, healing, grace. Don’t dwell in guilt – confront it, be penitent, turn onto another path, but we’re heading towards the Cross, towards the empty tomb. Forgiveness and mercy are central to the story – hope and healing are there for the taking; those ashes get washed away.

Lent 2014: Ash Wednesday (Psalm 51)

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It’s been a while since I’ve seen a street preacher, especially one that fits the stereotype. Maybe they’ve gone out of fashion, those wild-eyed would-be prophets, loud of voice and high in volume, each one carrying a hand-painted sign proclaiming a single word.

REPENT.

Nowadays those signs have faded from view; you just don’t see them as much. Some of them have mutated into marquees and hang outside churches. It’s probably safer that way. Besides, ‘repent’ is a word only church folk use, sometimes for good reason, other times as a way of shaming those who are already scared and hurting and vulnerable.

Ash Wednesday‘s traditionally a time of repentance, a way of entering Lent with honesty – yeah, I’ve screwed up, I admit it, I’m sorry. And I’m not into shaming or yelling about the indiscretions of others on the street, but I know that there are times I need to admit my guilt and actions and apologise, to confess to both God and those around me.

Yeah, even for things no-one knows about. Like hurling abuse at tailgaters the other day.

Psalm 51 is a traditional reading for Ash Wednesday. It’s King David’s hymn of confession – here’s a man who slept with someone else’s wife then committed murder to cover it up. He’s pouring out his heart and guilt to God, almost as an offering. After all, he knows a ritual sacrifice isn’t going to cover it, God’s more interested in his heart.

But it doesn’t end there. We sometimes think of confession as a guilt trip, but often it’s a moment of release. Stop carrying around the baggage of your wrongdoing, stop running from your past.

Turn around.

That’s what ‘repent’ means, ‘to turn around’. And looked at in that way, there are so many metaphors we can use – it’s the moment we head back home, the moment we start a new journey, the moment we return to God.

Because that’s what Lent’s all about, a journey towards an empty tomb via a cross. Rebirth, resurrection, new life, all these things… But we have to turn towards them; something has to die before it can be reborn.

I was going to talk about how sometimes the church needs to corporately repent of how it props up and creates systems and attitudes that hurt and oppress others. I still think that’s true, but I’m a part of that church, and I can yell at the system all I want, but it won’t change anything, because I’m as broken and guilty and as loved and wanted as anyone else in God’s eyes.

The change starts with me turning around, facing a new direction, running back towards God. Look at the Psalm again; David prays that he would change and be forgiven before he prays for his city. Somehow he knows that our hearts and our structures are all connected, and transformation starts with individuals.

No; the transformation starts with Easter, with a specific individual; with a cross and a garden and death defeated in ashes. This is the message of Easter; that forgiveness and a new start are both possible. Maybe today’s a good day to do a u-turn and start a new journey.

(By the way, I’m having an eye operation tomorrow. If anyone fancies sparing me a prayer feel free…)

Lent / Ash Wednesday (Matthew 4:1-11)

temptation_jesus22Hungry and tired, Jesus walks through the wilderness, a nomad for the forty days and forty nights before he begins his mission in earnest. It’s a time of temptation, of preparation, of spiritual conflict. It’s this that we commemorate when we eat our pancakes and consider what we’re going to give up for Lent.

I never know what to do with Lent. I’m lazy and undisciplined and normally end up forgetting what I’ve given up. There are times it feels like the Christian equivalent of New Year resolutions, a noble cause for a couple of weeks that collapses into insignificance the moment it gets too hard.

There’s also a nagging feeling that giving something up seems a little… perfunctory? There’s nothing wrong with quitting smoking or chocolate or Facebook – heck, it might even save your life – but quitting something leaves a void, and sometimes the forgotten part of Lent is what you fill that gap with.

See, there are things I do need to quit – a lack of sleep, a lack of self-discipline, a lack of de-stressing. Those are the things that hit me hardest, that, if I’m being honest, drive me away from God. In the midst of them I can get self-pitying – why doesn’t God help me? – but the fact is I’m not really reaching out for him.Giving up chocolate for a month-and-a-half might help my waistline, but Lent is ultimately a spiritual discipline – that needs to be the focus.

Maybe it’s instructive that Lent starts with Ash Wednesday. It’s a low time; the palm branches that commemorate Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem are burned, reminding us of how transient that moment was – only a few days later, the crowds were gone and Jesus was being crucified alone. It starts a period of fasting and repentance that not only remembers Jesus in the wilderness, but Moses fasting before God following the incident with the Golden Calf. It’s a time of honesty – here’s what’s gone wrong, how do we put it right again?

That’s the question, isn’t it? During his time in the wilderness, during his time of temptation, Jesus was presented with three very enticing answers to that question – security, power, fame. If only I knew where the next meal was coming from from, if only they all knew how good I am, if only people would listen to me… Life would be so much better.

And yet Jesus rejects all of those, choosing again and again the more difficult path, choosing God over all the easy answers. Because Lent’s a journey that leads to a very specific destination – to the Resurrection, the place where the journey both starts and ends, not in mourning but in forgiveness and rebirth  It’s a journey that requires us to let go of our baggage in the pursuit of God, clinging on to the belief, even with our fingertips, that our stumbling through the wilderness will eventually find us in a garden. And that journey starts here.