Help others this Lent rather than make sacrifices; here’s why – Bishop of Ripon
As I looked at my colleagues, I noticed the darkness of the night sky in South Korea, and the sunshine bursting through an open window in Barbados. It was the middle of my day here in North Yorkshire, and freezing cold outside.
Just for a moment, we all marvelled at how amazing it was that we could meet in this way, and soon common experiences were voiced about lockdown, anxiety, challenge, grief, joy and hope.
For a group of people who hadn’t met before, conversation soon began to flow freely (accompanied by the occasional ‘you’re on mute!’). Towards the end of the meeting, my colleague in Barbados asked if anyone had advice on how to use ash for Ash Wednesday?
It’s traditional at church services held on this day to receive the sign of the cross applied to one’s forehead; something of a challenge during a global pandemic when public health is a priority.
Today is indeed Ash Wednesday, when Christians mark the start of the 40-day period Jesus spent in the wilderness at the start of his public ministry. Whereas yesterday was all about the pancakes, from this day onwards we are meant to reflect on our personal and collective shortcomings as we journey through Lent in preparation for Easter.
It is traditional to give something up, and then to break into the chocolate Easter egg that awaits us in early April. In reality supermarkets have been selling Easter eggs and hot cross buns for some time now. I’m surprised Advent calendars aren’t already on the shelves.
This year however, I don’t think I will be giving anything up. I’ve had many conversations with individuals who have lost so much over the past year: loved ones, jobs, health, contact with family and friends, the list goes on.
This year it makes sense to take things up, or to remind ourselves of the burdens that others carry on our behalf.
I could spend the rest of this article listing the individuals and community organisations I am grateful for: the milkman, postman, delivery drivers, refuse and recycling teams, the cheery fellow-runners who exchange a wave and a hello as we pass one another on opposite sides of the road.
There are countless others too. While you think of those who might be on our list, I want to return to the bit about the ash on the forehead. To make ash for this purpose, you need to burn last year’s palm crosses, and add a bit of oil or water to make it stick to the forehead when you smudge it on.
Even though I can’t do that this year, I recall the words that are said when the ash touches the skin: ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return…’ More than any other time perhaps, these are tough words to say and hear.
It seems this past year we have been starkly reminded of our mortality. I came from dust, and one day, dust will be all that is left of me. In that unknown space in-between however, there is an opportunity to place my life into God’s hands, and to experience the adventures that life holds out for me.
But then, looking back on this past year, I have some questions about that adventure, and what its future might look like? And here I am reminded of the words of the formidable SAS Who Dares Wins presenter Ant Middleton: “Look for the path, not the obstacles.”
Maybe that is what I need to do, much like when I’m out running at the moment, and I take care to place my steps in ice-free places? I look for the clear bits of the path in front of me, not the compacted snow and ice that surrounds. On occasion it means I have to cross the road, or use what I call the ‘penguin technique’ to advance.
Sometimes I just need to stop and walk, go back a bit and find another way through. What might be frustrating in fact turns into a careful and patient advance.
When I get home I look back at my route and feel satisfied that I managed to find a way to navigate the run safely. Look for the path, not the obstacles.
It does seem extraordinary that here we are a year on and we are still dealing with social distancing and face masks. Challenges remain, but good things can be found in the most unlikely of places, and in the smallest of gestures, and for that I am filled with gratitude and hope.
The Right Reverend Dr Helen-Ann Hartley is the Bishop of Ripon.
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