This week we enter one of the most significant seasons of the christian calendar, Lent – a season of belonging.
For a period of 40 days (+6 Sundays) we are invited to prepare our hearts and bodies to be ready to embrace the paschal (Easter) mystery; the paradox that resurrection life can only be received through embracing the suffering, humility and vulnerability of the cross. Lent is an invitation to experience beauty amidst pain and suffering, deep joy alongside humiliation and rejection, and the intimate knowledge of Gods love for you personally. Lent invites us to imitate the practice of Jesus when he spent 40 days in the wilderness, tempted by the desires of life that we all encounter daily, and to choose to belong to God. It is not as many think, a time of sorrow, but a time of honest reflection, a time when we consciously choose to turn away from the activity and turmoil, stresses, tasks and responsibilities of our busy modern lives and instead to create pauses, intervals of silence. Instead of avoiding our true feelings, burying our hurts, our angers, our disappointments, through endless episodes of TV, social gatherings or intense work schedules, throughout Lent we choose to face our shadows and temptations, our vulnerability and brokenness, our failures. And in the quietness, in the spaces made, we discover the still small voice of everlasting love and acceptance that is waiting for us.
This beautiful season of belonging begins this week on Ash Wednesday (6th March 19) with an ancient ritual whereby participants are invited to receive the mark of the cross of Christ upon your forehead as a physical signifier that you continue to choose to follow him. This mark of belonging to Gods family is made with ashes and oil, it is a very moving and tactile act; as you are touched on the forehead by the priest or service leader, his fingers dipped in oil and black ashes, he speaks words of scripture over you,
“Remember thou art dust and to dust you shall return.”
Often followed by the invitation “Repent and believe in the Gospel”
These words and this ritual, act as a reminder of our own vulnerability and mortality, and are an encouragement for us to ask for forgiveness and to physically receive the mark of Christs cross to know that we belong to him. How beautiful is this mark, two lines, one that crosses the other, the horizontal represents our present life, our troubles, our fears, our pain and suffering, the vertical mark strikes through that and draws the path from God to man that was opened through the cross.
Artist Stephen Raw has created a moving calligraphic work that will be hanging behind the High Altar at Manchester Cathedral throughout Lent. Stephen says that he ‘was struck by the constant repetition of the words ‘Remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return’ which are said to each participant as they come forward to have the sign of the cross made in ashes on their foreheads. As a textual artist, Stephen is interested in what happens when spoken, fleeting language becomes visible and fixed. His hope in making this artwork is that the experience of hearing the words and seeing them will have more of a creative effect on participants than if the words were only spoken or only seen.’
The Ash Wednesday service will take place at Manchester Cathedral at 5.30pm on 6th March 2019. Consider making this tactile ritual a part of your prayer journey this Lent. Do you want to begin this season of prayer and reflection by saying yes to Jesus’ invitation to walk with him holding both the suffering of the cross and the joy of resurrection life by receiving the mark of belonging to Christ on your body? There are services taking place in many churches across the city, especially in Catholic Churches, or perhaps you can celebrate this ritual in your family, prayer group or with friends.