And so the forty days begin. It didn’t begin particularly well for me. As I sat at the table with my morning coffee flicking through my iPad wondering why so many people are giving up social media for Lent, my mind was also ticking off the list of things I had to remember. Lemon for cleaning ashy thumbs. Tick. Pew sheets. Tick. Sermon. Oh no, not me this time. Jane who is on placement from Tisec is preaching for the first time today. Say a prayer for Jane. Tick. Leaflet for suggestions for Lent. Tick. Bishop’s Lent Appeal leaflets. Tick. Dish for ashes… ah. Where did I last see that? OIl for ashes should be in Aumbry but better take a knife to mix with oil… Lent visual display for back of church… now that should be in my study somewhere…
So I went from someone who confidently thought that they were all organised to someone who still had a few jobs still to do so better get a move on. It has been rather hectic round here of late with three parishes to care for and my study and desk are testament to that. Not an inch of carpet can be seen and Rita Kitten has taken to sleeping on top of a bookcase for comfort and in case she is covered in a pile of papers.
But I still had plenty time if I got a move on and so the day began. I gathered up all my bags of stuff and headed for church in plenty time. The heating was on so the church felt lovely and cosy. Good, that’s one less worry. Then as I switched on the lights it hit me smack in the chops. Green! All is green! My lovely Sacristan has forgotten that the church needed to be purpled before Sunday. Still time, if I get a move on. I whipped the cloths off the altar, wrestled the frontal and pole off the hooks and headed up the back to the frontal-cupboard. Going through the door the pole got caught and I nearly somersaulted over it. (Picture dog with large stick trying to get through narrow gate – that was me!) Garrotted in the middle and broke a few ribs probably. Ok, I didn’t break any ribs but it did hurt. A bit. More haste, less speed, Ruth.
Jane, the preacher arrived, and quickly helped fold pewsheets, light candles and set up the altar. I started the elusive alchemy of mixing oil and ash to find the right consistency for marking foreheads. I know of old that this is a delicate business. One drop at a time. It must be done slowly for suddenly two drops can turn dry ash into ash soup, ready to run down a forehead and onto a nose. This tends to ruin the solemnity of the moment. I know this to my cost. One drop, mix and stir. Another drop. Mix and stir. And so on, and so on. After five minutes my patience runs thin as I hear people arriving, and pour in two drops. Soup! Instant soup! I knew it. Then you have to hunt for more ash and so it continues. Aagghh!
There are some clergy I know who sit for minutes in prayer before the service. Some read over their sermon. Some pray. I perspire and lose my temper. Not good. Not good at all. The church that was cosy for our congregation now feels like a furnace and the sweat runs down my back. No amount of ash will stick to my glistening forehead, I reckon. 10 o’clock has come and gone. The congregation awaits patiently in prayerful anticipation. Their priest feels like it is all a disaster before it even begins. Next year I’m going to start setting up two hours ahead. One hour is clearly not enough.
“Cleanse our consciences, we beseech thee dear Lord… that we may worship you with pure hearts and minds.” Ha! We bowed at the high altar and sat for a few moments. Breathe deeply, Ruth, breathe deeply. “Grace and peace to you…” And it began. Lord, have mercy… We turn from sin and seek your face… ‘Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests weep…’ (words from Joel). I sit up straight. How funny is that? Not quite at the weeping stage, Ruth, just a teeny bit dramatic as usual. And I let it go. I let the stress go. I felt the tension drop out of my shoulders. I noticed the green lectern falls left behind at the eagle lectern (or Big Burrd as we call him) and smiled. For it doesn’t really matter. And my little flock came up to have the mark of ashes on their forehead and I was able to do that for them. To mark each one a beloved child of God. Repent and turn to Christ. Repent. Repent. Repent.