This past week, as you well know, Lent began, and for the first time in three years, because of Covid, we were able to distribute ashes in the traditional way on Ash Wednesday. Last year we were advised to sprinkle the ashes over people’s heads. In 2021 we were in full lockdown, and the best we could do was to follow the instruction from the liturgists, inviting people to creatively provide their own ashes, using dried out soil from their garden; ashes from the grate; charcoal from the barbecue, or whatever else would suffice, and then we blessed the ashes virtually during the streamed Mass from the Oratory, and asked those tuned in to sign themselves with their ashes, using whatever formula they felt drawn to, whether to remember being dust and returning to dust; or promising to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. It was good this Lent, once again, to be marking people with the cross.
We entrusted the task of preparing the ashes to Father John, and he made a good job of it. Once again, I was reminded of an incident back in 2014 when a number of parishioners in various churches in Galway, in the West of Ireland, were quite literally branded by the ashes, complaining of a burning sensation as the priest signed them on their foreheads and spoke the accompanying words. One priest had to actually stop the Mass and advise the people to go into the sacristy and wash the ashes off. He then sent the ashes to a public health laboratory for testing. It turned out that the parishes where this happened had painstakingly prepared their own ashes which, as you know, are produced by burning the branches of the leftover palms from the previous Palm Sunday. It emerged that the palms they burned were too dry, so that the ashes turned caustic when water was added and produced the chemical potassium hydroxide, which doesn’t mix well with human skin. Apparently, it’s best to burn the branches while they are still green. The priests involved lamented that in very many years of preparing their own ashes in such a way, this was the first time that there had ever been any problem. I’m not too sure if they continued doing it that way, I suspect they did, but here in St. Mungo’s we are happy to get our ashes already made up in Prinknash Abbey with just the water, and perhaps a little oil, requiring to be added.
It has been said that, since Covid and lockdown, church attendance in Scotland has dropped significantly, in some places by as much as fifty percent. However, as always there were good crowds at the Masses on Ash Wednesday, arguably the biggest crowds of the year, even more so than at Christmas and Easter, and it’s a bit of a mystery as to why that should be, although here in St. Mungo’s, as a Passionist Church, it may be that Good Friday has even bigger crowds. What both days have in common is powerful ritual – the signing with ashes and the veneration of the cross. What deep places within ourselves must such rituals touch into?
I recently read that the well know fairy tale, Cinderella, can be understood as a kind of parable for Lent. The name, Cinderella, means the little girl in the ashes (the cinders). The tale begins with her being humbled, but at the end she is lifted up in love to a joy beyond her wildest imaginings. We all start Lent being humbled. What could be more humbling than to be signed with ashes and reminded of our mortality, reminded that we came from dust and return to dust? But, by the end of Lent, we will be lifted up in love, the greatest expression of God’s love being found in the Passion and Death of Jesus, through which we then enter into the incredible joy of the Resurrection at Easter. Hopefully we can journey through Lent in such a way as to make this, not a fairy tale, but the greatest reality we can know. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and He will raise you up. (James 4:10)
As ever, protect yourself, your loved ones and others, and protect Christ in your lives.