As I was preparing the ashes on Shrove Tuesday for the Ash Wednesday Masses, I was reminded of an incident you may have heard of back in 2014 when a number of parishioners in various churches in Galway 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 requiring to be added. Staying with Galway, it is reported that one parish there this year is offering drive-thru ashes, with people able to drive in one church gate, be stamped with the ashes, and then drive out through another gate without having to leave their car. This is absolutely true, so it would seem that Galway is the place to be for a bit of excitement on Ash Wednesday.
As ever, there would have been big crowds at the Masses throughout the Church on Ash Wednesday, perhaps 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?
Still with Lent in mind, a few years back, when I was working in Ireland, I preached a sermon on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, which that year was Temperance Sunday, in which I suggested that any one of us can become addicted to almost anything, and I couldn’t resist a reference to my own predilection for chocolate. After Mass a parishioner came up to me a little embarrassed and apologetic because she had in her bag a bar of chocolate for me. This lady and her husband had on occasion, over the years, kindly brought me a variety of unusual chocolate bars. This one came from Past Times, a shop you may be familiar with. It was called Ration Chocolate, inspired by the war time rationing of confectionary that began in 1942, sometime after the rationing of other foodstuffs. I’m too young to remember rationing, I was only three when it came to an end in July 1954, but I do remember seeing the ration book that my mother and others had been issued with. This was a 3½ ounce bar of chocolate with seven sections marked Monday to Sunday, allowing for a ½ ounce ration each day. Needless to say, I had it all eaten that night, as is my wont, and I marvelled at the kind of will power and discipline it must have demanded to take just one section a day. I will be off chocolate again this Lent, in the hope that my fasting will awaken in me an even deeper hunger for God, who alone can satisfy my deepest longings. Here’s a poem I came across on hungering for God, by the Christian poet Deborah Ann Belka:
I have a holy hunger for God’s strength within, so that I may always flee from Satan and sin; I have a holy thirst to be in God’s word, a need for living waters to be constantly stirred; I have a holy longing for God’s mighty power, to overcome temptation, every waking hour; I have a holy want needing to be satisfied, a deep desire in my soul to be refined and purified; I have a holy hunger, a deep, yearning thirst, a burning desire to put God ~ in my life first.