Today, Ash Wednesday, is the start of Lent. This is beginning of forty days of reflection about the Christian story with lots of Lent Courses and reflections available. Premier is offering three free courses which you could join even now!
But today is a day for repentance, humility, and an awareness of our own fragility. A day to think about our own mortality after the celebrations of Shrove Tuesday - often known in other parts of the world as Mardi Gras - Fat Tuesday - when Christians would eat up luxury products in the food cupboard before the Lent fasting began.
Core to Ash Wednesday for many Christians is being ashed. Churches traditionally hold a service for Ash Wednesday, celebrating the beginning of Lent, focussing on our mortality and using ashes made from last year's palm crosses to make the sign of a cross on the forehead of those attending. The priest or minister will pronounce: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
Rob and Ruth Sutherland at ChangingWorship.com have written a fantastic song summing up the meaning of this ashing:
But so few people will be able to be ashed this Ash Wednesday. Some missional evangelists have taken to the streets and are offering street ashing:
Some churches are open for smaller services with places like Chichester Cathedral accommodating 40 people and sprinkling ashes over the congregation rather than making a sign of the cross on their foreheads - and this is a global phenomenon with pictures of this act in a non-socially distanced Manila Cathedral:
Or there is a short online service for Ashing at Home:
The Church of England proposed its own guidelines for Ashing during the coronavirus pandemic and you can see how these guidelines have influenced a lot of these example.
But the Church of England also created an Instagram filter for Ashes at Home which superimposed a hand drawn black digital cross - much like in my picture at the start of this blog:
Interestingly, a number of critics picked up the proposal that this should be used "in selfies". For some this made asking a public spectacle - about display rather than internal reflection and some of the usual suspects came out and criticised the digital innovation. Others pointed out that there had been little consultation on the filter and that more communication was needed. But the big issue was the public display of asking - as if asking was now a fashion symbol rather than a sign of our own mortality, our own recognition that we are but ashes.
Simon Rundell, one of the Lent Course producers and an Anglican Priest in Devon noted that the filter was "an excellent technical solution to a contemporary logistical problem: the marking of ash is a reflection of our inner desire for repentance so whether it is pixels or burnt palms makes no difference liturgically or theologically." Simon's comment notes that the filter offers an alternative form of Ashing which does not necessarily be about self-display but of witness. How else does it work as people walk around with ash crosses on their foreheads outside the pandemic?
The question that does not seem to be answered by the critics is what else is being proposed? Someone on Twitter suggested watching an online service but not using the "ridiculous" filter. In other words, you go through the service for ashing but without actually being ashed. With so few ashing ceremonies available, some churches have sent cards to their congregations offering the sign of the cross on the cover. But this doesn't actually mark the worshipper. A bit like spiritual communion in which the priest receives bread and wine but the laity are expected to ask God to grant them the blessing without the material elements.
I wonder whether the digital imposition of the cross through the filter offers a novel way to make a mark on people's digital skin - to bring the rite into the digital age? Of course, many will see it only as a way of making something which is so special for them done in the traditional way into something too modern, too much about self-promotion or visuals. I do wonder whether it would be better for us all if we saw more Christian imagery, iconography and witness on digital sites, not less. Oh for some ashing on TikTok!
Finally, another alternative might be to explore the creative models. Poet Malcolm Guite re-offers a sonnet for Ash Wednesday from 2015: