An Ash Wednesday story

Last week, on the afternoon of Ash Wednesday, I went to visit D. I was taking her communion at home because she has been housebound since October when she had a fall. She can now walk around the house and back garden but she has lost her confidence in going out the front door. She has been waiting for months for a 3 wheel zimmer thingy but the wheels of the Social Care Dept seem to grind rather slowly. (Yes, I’ve written about her before and she still hasn’t had a bath or shower but is making do with a ‘dicht’.)

As it was Ash Wednesday I thought I’d take some ash along with me and use some of the liturgy we’d used in the morning. (Transporting ash is not easy, let me say, and I forgot the lemon.) We sat in her lounge looking out on to the garden where St Francis and a stork look down upon the pond. D is a third-order Franciscan, living a Franciscan way of life in her own home. She is eternally optimistic and never complains and I see St Francis in her every time we meet. After the service we spent some time in silence listening to the birds outside and then D said she wanted to get something. She came back with a bible and opened it up to the front cover. Then she took her thumb and rubbed it on her forehead and transferred the smudge of ash into the front page of her bible. There on the cream paper were rows of black and grey smudges from Ash Wednesdays past with the year underneath. One year there was a bit of paper stuck in with a smudge on it because D had been away that year but she didn’t want to miss it.

It was a beautiful sight, those rows of smudgy crosses. They represented all the prayers for repentance, the reminder of ashes of hopelessness. Remember child that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Some were quite dark, some barely visible. Thumbprints of ashes past.

I came home and did the same in my bible.

Ash Wednesday and Ruth begins Lent with a whimper

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.

ashesJane, 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.


Ash Wednesday

Gracious God,

you give us this time of salvation

to turn from sin and seek your face.

We ask you to cleanse and purify our hearts;

rouse us to prayer, self-denial

and service of your neighbour,

that we may know the joy of your kingdom

and have our treasure in heaven.

We ask this through Jesus Christ,

who is one with you and the HOly Spirit,

now and for ever.

(from Celebrating the Christian Year, Vol II)

Herbert McCabe wrote:

If we go to confession, it is not to plead for forgiveness from God. It is to thank him for it… when God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving: he is love.

God, Christ and Us

Shrove Tuesday

Well we are all getting geared up for Lent here in Christ Church. I hope you all had a good ‘Collop Monday’ and enjoyed the savoury pancakes. Tonight at 7pm we shall be enjoying the sweet ones. (You’ll fine the recipe over on Kelvin’s Blog at his most visited page.) This is Carnival time folks – goodbye to meat and hello to fasting and abstinence. The fun can’t last, all good things must come to an end. And remember you can’t have Shrove Tuesday without following it up with Lent. Shrovetide is about the forgiveness of sins (‘shrive’ means absolution) and before the Reformation in England people queued up to go to Confession and be shriven as Lent began.

Tomorrow the Imposition of Ashes will be available at 10am and 7.30pm. Ashes are a very ancient symbol of mourning and repentance  and are made from previous year’s palm crosses, mixed with a little chrism oil, and the priest makes the sign of the cross on our forehead with the words ‘Remember child, that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Repent and turn to Christ.’  Ash Wednesday is a strict day of fasting, like Good Friday, and some people will eat only one main meal (and no meat) on this day.

Then on Thursday we will hold Morning Prayer every day at 9am. For those who want to take someone on during Lent, this is an ideal opportunity to commit to prayer and reading of Scripture. Some made do it daily, some may make a commitment to come at least once a week. Whichever, you will be very welcome. Actually this is always a great joy for me because saying the Daily Office alone can be very lonely.

Each Sunday during Lent I shall be doing teaching Masses. No sermons, just a little explanation of our liturgy and why we do and say certain things. There will be a new Liturgy Book especially for Lent which gives some of the reasons on the left hand page (and we shall be using the Inclusive Language version of the 1982 Liturgy).

Next week our Lent Group will begin on Wednesdays through Lent looking at Aspects of Prayer. I hope you will come along and find a new way of praying.  For some, silence works, and for others colouring in is the best way. We will look at icons and the rosary too. Do sign up if you are coming so that I know how many to expect.

I am going to try and do daily blogs during Lent this year. They may be pictures, quotes, poetry – I’m not sure yet but we’ll give it a go. One of my penances during Lent is always to give up reading fiction and do some ‘serious’ reading of theology so I might share some of that with you too.

May you have a holy and blessed Lent.

Ash Wednesday poem

the smudge of ash

on a white brow

darkness and light

repent and turn to Christ

darkness and light

ash mixed with oil

oil to anoint

oil to heal

last year’s negatives

(the darkness)


and taken up as a cross

with confidence

into the light.

Ash Wednesday

Remember child that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Repent and turn to Christ.

And so it begins. There will be two opportunities for you to receive the imposition of ashes at St Mark’s – at 10am and 7.30pm.  We will be focussing on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Today we think about those things which may hold us back, weigh us down, prevent us from holding our heads up in the presence of God.

You can pick up a leaflet on Journeying through Lent in Prayer and join us at Morning Prayer each day at 9.30am. Or if you can’t be with us, you can take a copy of Morning Prayer away with you and do it on the bus or before you go to work.

I invite you therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial: and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.

Happy Lent

Two very different Ash Wednesday services yesterday. In the morning it was an adapted version of the 1970 Liturgy downstairs in the Crypt Chapel.  In the womb-like space it brought forth deepening reflection and an opportunity to set aside the burdens that would weigh us down.

In the evening we gathered in the round upstairs with the choir excelling themselves. Andrew, our organist (well, pianist at the moment due to the lack of an organ), had composed a new setting for the Lent Prose which was just beautiful. We sang a Taize response to the intercessions and also had a new mass setting by Andrew Moore which was very suitable for Lent. (953 in Complete Anglican Hymns Old & New) Bishop Alan presided and it was lovely to be ‘done to’.

We may be dust, but we are dust that is full of mystery and that dreams of glory; dust, we sense, that is to be changed, transfigured into God’s own likeness.  (Thom Shuman)

This morning at 9.30am we begin daily Morning Prayer.  This is partly for my own benefit, of course. There is nothing more lonely than saying the Office alone. Let’s hope someone else turns up then!  Quite a few people took the Morning Prayer book away with them to do at home or on the way to work, so we shall be saying it in community.

(On a personal note, I have learned that you don’t miss out painkillers when the 4 hours is up and you think that maybe the pain has gone. It hasn’t.)

Priest down

For a week now I have had some kind of dreaded lurgy which involves vomiting and stomach pains – never a pretty combination. Mornings are bearable but as the day goes on it builds into an unbearable frenzy of unpleasantness.  The doc has given me anti-sickness pills and they are making me feel sick. Go figure.

Of course one has to wonder about the timing of this. After all, this is a notoriously hard week for clergy with pancakes and ashes and new liturgies and the like. (On a happier note – the diet is going terribly well now!) Please pray for all the above.

Pancakes will happen tonight at 7pm and I give you my apologies now.

Ash Wednesday will happen tomorrow morning at 10am and at 7.30pm.

Remember child that you are dust…

Oh how I remember that first Ash Wednesday when Fr K said those words to me as he pressed ash in to my forehead. “Remember child that you are dust…” Not “Remember man that you are dust…” which had always been the form of words used in that church previously. I was startled initially, expecting the old familiar words and hearing something different. Child. I am a child of God and it was so comforting to hear those words said to me so intimately. I am not ashamed to say that tears flooded down my face. I have used it ever since I was grown up enough to take services of my own. But I am still a child of God and happy to remain so.

Today there are two opportunities to receive the imposition of ashes at St Mark’s Portobello. (10am and 7.30pm) Bishop Alan Smithson will be preaching at both. I’ve got the lemon ready.

For the last few years I have given up reading fiction for Lent. And I shall be doing the same this year, except for a brief glance at our Book Group book for which I hope I am given dispensation. Should have planned that better and chosen something more meaty. It is always a great discipline for me to give up reading fiction which I love. But I shall be taking on some more serious reading. Here is the list awaiting my attention:

The Life and Work of a Priest by John Pritchard
Wonderful Exchange  – An Exploration of Silent Prayer by Sandy Ryrie
Soul Space by Margaret Silf
Spiritual Emotions by Robert C Roberts (I’m doing a review of this for the Expository Times, don’t you know?)

There’s plenty more awaiting my attention. I’ll let you know how I get on.

And of course I will be checking in to Beauty from Chaos – the daily blog for Lent.

Oh happy Lent

My second day on the job and so far I have presided at three masses – 2 for Ash Wednesday (not well attended) and one this morning which was very well attended. I am having to get used to using the Grey Book again (1970 Liturgy) and trying to remember the words when I turn from an eastward facing altar. I hope noboby spotted me birling in a complete circle at one point yesterday morning!

I am planning on re-ordering the church sanctuary after last night’s service. The sedilia was moved back into a corner which I discovered was too dark and miles away from the people for the Liturgy of the Word. Its all very well creating a sense of mystery but when you can’t see the people and they can’t see you then it’s not much good. I ended up wandering about in front of the altar and it really was quite messy.

Great crowd this morning though and we had a laugh over coffee after the service. Remembering names is my next task. Oh how I wish everyone wore name badges for the first six months!