Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mercredi des Cendres

Mercredi des Cendres is Ash Wednesday - today! As I'm doing my jetting about the UK (we safely arrived with Bristol grandparents yesterday afternoon, in the middle of lambing season, and fly to Edinburgh grandparents today), I got thinking and photographing and scheduled most of this post in advance... Ashes are quite a significant part of life when you heat your house with a wood fire. We mainly burn oak, which is strong and slow-burning, producing a nice, pale ash. When we add in other wood, gleaned from fallen trees or ordered too late (and therefore a bit damp and 'green'), the ash is darker, I think a sign that the burning wasn't so efficient.
Whatever ash we get drops, or is brushed, through the grate into the ash pan below the fire. This needs emptying whenever it fills up, as some ventilation is essential through the grate. If the fire won't start, the first thing I do is check the ash pan. One lovely difference between the wood fire and the coal ones we had in some of our English houses is that it burns best when cleaned infrequently - the logs like an insulating layer of ash to lie on. My kind of housekeeping!
The finished ashes are thrown into our metal bin (I always think of the plastic ones which still have 'no hot ashes' printed on their lids). We use the ash over the year to mix with compost from the heap, which really improves our heavy clay soil.
Ash Wednesday is so-called because from the Middle Ages Christians used this day to begin
Lent with a day of repentance and reflection on their sins. It's true that words like 'repentance' and 'sins' have been used to control and subjugate people over time (having studied history and read books like The Name of the Rose and Chocolat I can see the terrible side of control in the name of God). But I think we throw the baby out with the bathwater if we reject words like that because they've been misused. A cross of ashes is traditionally drawn on the forehead of every person at the service. I don't think I've ever been a member of a church which did this, but I went to a Catholic school and more recently visited a Catholic Ash Wednesday service in Harrogate when we lived there. I found the symbolism very moving and effective. In the Old Testament putting ashes on the forehead was a symbol of mourning and sorrow. It certainly shows that you're not thinking of your personal style - people leave the cross on all day and get funny looks!
I can't find different traditons for mercredi des cendres in France - it seems to be a very standard ritual all round the Catholic world. For me I think the key word has got to be 'repentance', which means no more than 'turning'. It's about taking time to look at your life and the direction it's going in. Not happy with that direction? Turn!
As a Christian I feel that the direction I always need to be moving in is towards Jesus. Lots of things in blogging help me to do that - your friendships, the Challenge of the Utmost Kind, learning more about your lives and thoughts, and reflecting on our family's life and priorities as I blog about them help me to remember that there IS a purpose and there IS a direction. Knowing Jesus shows me the goal, and gives me the strength to make changes I couldn't manage on my own.
This is me thinking out loud, trying to work out what Lent, as a non-Conformist Christian in a non-Liturgical church, means to me. Stay tuned for the Pause in Lent, where I may even make some sense of it, with your help!


Elizabethd said...

Lovely, Floss.
I remember having ashes placed on our foreheads when I taught at a Catholic Convent school....and we were supposed to keep them on all day!

Carol Conway-Fleisher said...

What a very insightful post.I grew up Baptist so I had no prior knowledge of Lent or Ash Wednesday. I recently started attending a Lutheran church. At first the idea of going to Ash Wednesday services and having ash put on my head weireded me out. Thankfully you post has helped get rid of some of my nervousness and given me a better since of understanding. Thanks again.

Apron Senorita said...

Glad you arrived safetly. I thank you for sharing and appreciate your wisdom. I wish you a wonderful and blessed week!

Yoli :)

Lululiz said...

Safe travels round the UK!
I remember my childhood days so well, when I used to go to church with my grandmother and receive the ash cross on my forehead.

Angela said...

Great post, Floss. I too am from a nonconformist non liturgical background- but find the disciplines of Lent/Ash Wednesday really helpful in focussing my thoughts on Jesus.

Sherri B. said...

Thank you for sharing such an informative post. My church does not do ash Wednesday but I attended my sisters church one year and was very touched by the service. We wrote down our confessions on bits of paper and it was burned at the alter and put on our foreheads. It does make you reflect on things that you might need to change and with Jesus that can be accomplished.
Glad to hear you are all doing well. Enjoy and stay well.

Serenata said...

Very interesting post Floss, thank you for this.

Glad you arrived safely. Hope you have a lovely time.

Lorraine said...

Thank you for your thoughts on Ash Wednesday. You have provided some lovely thoughtful and insightful posts and I look forward to journeying through A Pause in Lent with you.
I amd just on my way now to an Ashing Service at my Church and it is such an evocative way of focusing on the Lenten season.
Blessings to you and yours xx

Carole said...

I liked this post, being a Lutheran protestant we never had any formality like these. However last year we had a slovak student who stayed with us for the holidays, and she is from a very Catholic family who observes all the traditions. On that day she didn't eat any meat or ham, just fruit, and I took her to the service at the Church down the road. It was very interesting.
I think that these 40 days are meant to make people think and meditate, and be aware of the spiritual side of life. In the old days it was a period where you were not as busy as the rest of the year with the crops, the animals or whatever ?? And the end of it corresponds to the beginning of Spring - a new beginning in life ?
Like the muslim Ramadan where people fast to know what it's like to have an empty stomach (to practice empathy and sympathy) and celebrate and give thanks after the sun sets - or in any other religious traditions where fasting and detachment from the material world enables people to be more aware of their spiritual side - I think that this time of the year is the opportunity to focuse on the community, on relationships, on spiritual values. It never hurts to do something like that, especially in our consumption society.

Serenata said...

I hope my email didn't come across the wrong way Floss, I certainly didn't mean it to if it did.

Take it easy and enjoy your time away.

Michela said...

Hi Floss! Thank you for your information..I was too much young when I attended the service for understanding the meaning of Catholic rituals.
Enjoy your stay and please say hello to mum and dad!

Sarah said...

I was waiting for my mother to come home yesterday and when she did I got a huge shock. I said what on earth happened to you, did you bang you head on something? No she laughed, it's my ash cross! I tell you, it wasn't very cross looking by then, more like a nasty bruise.

Anonymous said...

Hi Floss, we attended our first Ash Wednesday service today (I even posted a photo of me with the ash). It was a really neat experience. Just this past week, I have been learning so much about repentance and self-discipline and denying one's self. 40 more days of learning!!

(Well, more than that, really. But--you know what I meant.)

A Bun Can Dance said...

Dear Floss
What a thought provoking post. I've never realised that repent meant "to turn". I love that idea, because it is both turning away from and turning towards. And with the Utmost challenge I feel we've really turned away from the consumer/material driven society so much more.
Like you I feel so many words associated with Religion have been used to deny/disempower people over the centuries in order to gain control and power over the masses. And also for political reasons.
I am much more mindful of the spiritual awakening that Lent offers thanks to joining you with A Pause in Lent. I really think that I will be better able to put my life affirming Lent into practice in all aspects of day to day life, through the regular 'checking in' for blog posts.
I'll stop - the comment is getting too long! I hope you are having a lovely visit to UK and look forward to hearing about it on your return.
Happy days
Denise x

Julia said...

Beautiful! Well said!

Linda said...

Loved your post! I grew up Baptist, married a I've been a member of the United Methodist church for over 30 years now. Methodists celebrate Lent.... I don't always go and get ashes on Wednesday, but did this year. I tend to try to add something to my daily more time spent in prayer or reading the Bible, etc.