As we enter into Lent, members of the team share their reflections on the significance of this season. 17/02/2021
The vividness of grey
One of my favourite composers is Ralph Vaughan Williams. His music is deeply evocative of the English countryside – its beauty and how he saw it changing during his lifetime. I hadn’t appreciated how marked his music was by his experience of his involvement in the Great War until I listened in to Radio 3’s Composer of the Week this week. Perhaps I love his music because it helps connect me with a terrible experience of loss unknown to me, but which I need to acknowledge within my existence. Vaughan Williams’ music hangs between the lament and triumph of the human experience in all its brokenness and frailty.
How do we even begin to articulate, let alone ‘mark’, the time we have been through in 2020 and continue to go through in 2021? The ash of Ash Wednesday symbolizes death, mourning and repentance – the ‘marks’ also of war, which this virus has been likened to. Hospital wards have been described as trenches – the ‘front line’. This year ashes take on extra significance – they are markers to remind us of the collective loss in the world – of those known and unknown to us.
Vaughan Williams was an atheist (and the son of a vicar) but warmed towards agnosticism in later years – a change that I feel in his music. His music leaves me holding onto what has passed, but what also remains – the ashes of life. The unnerving shift between major and minor and everything in between; the unfinished cadences that cry out for the certainty of ending.
That smudged ash shaped cross on our foreheads holds that same tension of life and death – not straightforward light and darkness, but the in–between greyness of living – that we’ve experienced paradoxically as so vivid this last year.
Anna Wheeler is Operations and Events Manager at Theos
Weeping may stay for the night
This time last year, a friend and I went to the Ash Wednesday service at Westminster Abbey. We sat among a hundred others, but were advised not to shake hands with anyone. We were given Communion ‘in one kind’ – no wine, only bread administered by sanitised hands. A mysterious ‘virus from China’ was becoming more of a present threat, though we probably all still thought this was going to be another bird flu.
This year, very few churches across the country will hold in–person Ash Wednesday services as we remain in lockdown and unable to gather together. But Ash Wednesday – perhaps more than ever – remains a precious day in the Christian calendar. Though the ashes are traditionally symbols of repentance, they also echo the use of ashes in acts of mourning and grief, of lament and disappointment. Many times in the Bible, upon the loss of a loved one or a disastrous event, mourners would cover their heads in ashes, weeping and wailing in the streets in an expression of grief and pain.
Over the course of this last year, I’ve wished it was socially acceptable to do the same. At times of loss and anger, a simple ‘that’s a shame’ or even the shedding of tears just hasn’t seemed to cut it. Pouring ash on my head and sitting in the middle of the high street shrieking has felt like a more appealing option. Because expressing grief is good for us. It helps us come to terms with our pain. It allows us to declare ‘this isn’t right’. The Gospels tell us that Jesus himself wept in grief at the loss of his friend. But Christians also believe that grief will end and that we can grieve in safety because the Bible says that all wrongs will be made right again. This hope brackets grief, buffering it and containing it within the promise that it will one day end. Ash Wednesday reminds us that ‘weeping may stay for the night’, but acknowledges the promise that, eventually, ‘joy comes in the morning’.
Lucy Colman is Head of Development at Theos
Remembering why we fast
I’m a sucker for a challenge, and Lent has always been a great excuse to see how far I can push the limits of my self–control. This tends to involve giving up at least one unhealthy snack (usually crisps) and a bad habit (biting my nails – the fact that I give this up every year suggests that it is not succeeding as a long–term solution).
It’s easy to forget the real purpose behind such ‘fasting’. Lent is traditionally a time when Christians choose to fast from something in order to help them focus on God and prepare for the coming of Easter. Fasting, whether from food or anything else, is intended to remind ourselves of what we really need (“man cannot live on bread alone”), to re–shuffle our priorities and to free up more time to spend with God.
It strikes me that lockdown has given us an extended opportunity to re–focus our attention. While struggling with the loss of social contact and freedom, I have found myself grateful for the time available to spend on simple things that I often don’t prioritise: playing the piano, exercising, praying. There have been fewer distractions and less excuse for side–lining those things that are good for the soul.
Jesus didn’t spend 40 days and nights without food in the desert arbitrarily, but to prepare himself for what was to come. The fact that Lent is accompanied by lockdown this year will serve as a double reminder to use this time well, and it is not insignificant that Easter holds the additional hope of some restrictions easing. We do not know what life will look like come Easter, but perhaps this Lent could be the time we need to best prepare, mentally and spiritually, for whatever post–lockdown holds.
Abbie Allison is Communications and Events Officer at Theos
A time to be silent
Every year around this time, I read the series of poems by T.S. Eliot known as Ash Wednesday. I studied these first at school, and again at university, and have stayed close to them, and most of Eliot’s oeuvre, all my adult life. And the more I read them, the less I understand them.
At first, I thought I was able to place them in the narrative of a poet who had not long before been baptised into the Church of England. “Because I do not hope to turn again”, the first in the series of six poems begins. “And let my cry come unto thee”, the last one ends.
And yet, the more I read them, the more I was forced to acknowledge that that narrative was a Procrustean bed, in which stubborn, mysterious words were forced into a pattern that broke them, failed to do them any justice.
It was with some relief then that, reading through Eliot’s Collected Letters, I came upon his own reflections on Ash Wednesday. “You would be shocked to learn how much of the poem I can’t explain myself,” he wrote to his friend Bishop George Bell in 1930. “Certain imagery…came direct out of recurrent dreams, so I shall abandon them to the ghoulish activities of some prowling analyst.”
Frustrating for analysts, but truer for life. There are times that are proper for silence, for reflection, for refraining from offering answers, for waiting, for sitting on the ground and keeping a distressed friend company, for the word “unheard, unspoken”. After the twelve months we have all lived through, Ash Wednesday feels like such a time.
Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos
Interested in this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.