Of kites and ashes
Assistant Rector's House, March 2001
It is interesting that the Orthodox churches of the East do not include Ash Wednesday, with all its sombre and penitential associations, in their tradition. In stark contrast to our use of ‘ashes’, their first weekday in Lent is known as Clean Monday. This is an open-air holiday in Greece, and celebrated by a general exodus to the countryside. Families set out for the fields and woods with picnics of food and wine - and the children take with them brightly coloured kites, for kite-flying is one of the main features of the day.
It all fits beautifully with the words of an Orthodox hymn for the first week in Lent
There is freshness and a hope in both actions and words. A looking forward to a new future.
But how does this fit? - can it fit? - with our first day of Lent, with its sombre words as ashes are placed on brows:
Doesn’t it make you long to be Orthodox!?
The truth is that we need both approaches. As so often is the case within the development of church traditions, some churches have emphasised one truth, some another. We need to go on being open to each other’s insights and learning from each other.
At the beginning of Lent both Eastern and Western Christians hear the gospel words from St Matthew ‘when you pray and fast do not look gloomy like the hypocrites - or make your faces unsightly so that other people may see your virtue.’ The Orthodox dramatically take note of this and go out laughing and enjoying themselves, rejoicing in the love of God who is the giver of light and forgiveness. Their kites soar up into the sky, a sign of that soaring freedom in the new life of Christ, which is promised at Easter.
And we must hang onto that in our tendency to breast-beating in our liturgy and our thoughts. Lent is not a time for misery. It is a time for deepening our faith, and opening ourselves up to the love of God and the people around us. It is a time of preparation for Easter, the most glorious festival of the Christian year.
However, it is just because we are preparing for Easter that we cannot ignore the other side of the picture. Jesus suffered and died, with us and for us, before entering into his new, risen life. If we take seriously that we are his disciples, then Lent must be a time when we face up to some realities of our Christian lives. We cannot rush to the joy of Easter without considering what has gone before, in Jesus’ life or our own. Lent is a time to question within ourselves how we have allowed Christ’s ways to be pushed to the margins of our lives. It is a time for hard thinking and quiet reflection. It is an opportunity for ‘personal growth’. Sadly that phrase has taken on some selfish connotations of recent years. The personal growth we strive for in Lent will be reflected in the way we live our lives with other people.
Traditionally Lenten observance has included three elements - some form of self-discipline, prayer and acts of service to others (which could be almsgiving). One of the early church fathers, Peter Chrysologus, said:
Prayer, compassion, fasting - these three are one, and they give each other life. For fasting is the soul of prayer, compassion is the life of fasting. Let no-one tear them apart for they cannot be separated.
Fasting is a misunderstood word. The 17th century poet Robert Herrick described it thus;
What a sense of freedom if we managed to do all that. Kite flying and picnics would seem like the natural response!!!!!