16 Feb Reflection for Ash Wednesday
There is a large icon of Christ in glory at the east end of our chapel. How do I know this? I don’t mean, “How do I know there is an icon there?”; it is 4ft tall and unmissable. I mean, “How do I know this is a depiction of Christ?”. Usually we identify a picture because we know what the person looks like, most particularly their facial features. But this cannot be the case for Jesus. So how do I know it is Jesus?
There are conventions, of course. We all, in England at least, recognise a picture of king Henry VIII, not because we are personally acquainted with him, but because representations of him tend to have certain characteristics – red hair and beard, portly, dressed in magnificent fabrics in a 16th century style. Similarly, if we see a man in a toga with cropped hair and a laurel crown, we are likely to identify it as Julius Caesar – or at least as a Roman emperor. So there are some characteristics that tend to point us towards recognising Jesus in a painting, or drawing, or icon.
Yet, there are millions – and possibly billions – of images of Jesus. Every single one different. We can identify pretty much all of them as being pictures of Jesus, even though we have never met him in the flesh and the diversity of the pictures is mind-blowingly immense. He can be white and fair-haired, or black with a trimmed beard; he can be seated in sumptuous robes, or walking through a stinking market place with a rag-tag band around him; he can be severe, or smiling, holding out hands in judgement or blessing; the picture can be stylised, or the height of realism; a photograph of an actor, or a few sketched lines in a Good News Bible. Yet we do know, somehow, that every single one of these utterly different depictions is Jesus Christ. It is astonishing.
That then set me thinking about all the foreheads that would, but for lockdown, be marked with a small cross of ash today. Thousands of faces in infinite variety. Each one coming to Christ in acknowledgement of sin and seeking his grace. Whatever their circumstances, or nationality, or outlook, politics, whatever their pain, or race, or age, or vulnerability; all come in the complete equality that penitence brings. Every single one can come because the Jesus who walked the Palestinian streets over 2000 years ago is so fully human, so confident and comfortable with who he is, so completely at home with God the Father, so at ease in himself, that he embraces all humanity. Everyone can approach him and find welcome.
Ash has long been a symbol of penitence, reminding us of our true place in the scheme of things, stripped of pretension and resentments and evaluative judgements and any sense of superiority, representing – as ash does – the understanding that we would be nothing but a pile of dust were it not for the creating and sustaining persistent love of God. Yet for there to be ash there has also had to be fire. Ash is indeed a great leveller – we are all forgiven sinners. But it is also a reminder that there has been light and warmth and energy and transformative power – creative fire – and that out of dust, soil, earth, things grow. Our fruit trees love a bucket of wood ash from the boiler. Ash is an invitation to return to and align our lives with the creator, not just looking back in sorrow and repentance (ash) but moving forward with God into the life of the future (creative fire); moving into Lent and our journey towards Easter.
I once knew a couple who, every Lent, gave up television and filled their evenings by inviting people for a meal. It has always struck me as a wonderfully creative way to engage with the spirit of Lent, encompassing self-denial and cost in a spirit of giving and growth. Can we find ways to offer our creative fire too? We may not be able to offer hearth and home when we are not permitted within 2 metres of each other! But we can give the warmth and welcome of love, be it to those we live with, or in a letter, a phone call or a Zoom meeting. A casserole on a doorstep may be a cliché but it is sustaining and nourishing nonetheless. Each of us can be the face and hands of Jesus to someone.
Each Christian carries the invisible symbol of their baptism on their forehead, even if they cannot get to church to have it marked in ash. Each person is recognisably Christ’s as they embrace humanity – their own and other people’s – and, as they take that risk, find themselves a little more confident and secure in who they are and a little more at ease with God the Father. Perhaps more able to imagine a smile of joy and encouragement there, not just a severe judge scowling at the penitent sinner.
As Kingfishers Catch Fire
By Gerard Manley Hopkins
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
The Revd’ Sr Alison OSB is a member of the Mucknell Abbey Community