My Father passed away on December 7th last year. He was 89 years old, had been suffering from kidney failure and died in his sleep, in his bed, with my Mother beside him. Whilst we obviously miss him, I can’t help thinking he had a good death.
As I prepared my tribute to be delivered at his funeral I asked family and friends for stories about Ant (his nickname), that captured him. One I did not use eventually was of the day he decided to be helpful. A city man at heart, my parents moved to North Norfolk when Dad retired. One Saturday morning, with Spring round the corner, Dad decided to clean out the fireplace. He removed the clinkers, brushed off the grate, swept up all the ash into the tray, stood back to admire his work and then headed to the dustbin by the back door. Mum had been busy that morning too, cleaning the kitchen – which now sparkled. Dad smiled at Mum – as if to say – aren’t we industrious, opened the back door and at that moment a gust of wind blew the ashes everywhere. The kitchen turned grey, the language turned blue and my sister made a strategic retreat!
I was reminded of the story last week – on Ash Wednesday. I hope you all managed to have a pancake and your houses are suitably shriven? Ordinarily we would have gathered for the imposition of ashes. This short service, where attendees have a cross put on their forehead made from the ash of burnt crosses from the previous years Palm Sunday service and olive oil, whilst the Priest recites the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” is an opportunity to repent and prepare oneself for Lent. If you are brave enough not to wipe it off as soon as you leave Church and head into the Co-Op the cross can present a missional opportunity too – as I discovered last year!
We were not, sadly, able to have such a service this year, but I am sure many of you observed the day. We are encouraged to deny ourselves during Lent, in memory of Christ’s 40 days in the desert, but after a year in which we have already given up so much I can’t help thinking this might be the time to ring the changes and take up something instead. The Church’s Five Marks of Mission might provide some ideas. They are :
To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
To teach, baptise & nurture new believers
To respond to human need by loving service
To challenge violence of every kind & to pursue peace & reconciliation
To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation & sustain & renew the life of the earth.
Big asks on a first reading perhaps, but if I suggest that offering to pray for someone you know is going through a tough patch would fit number one; putting something in the Food Bank Box in Overton Co-Op number three and picking up litter on your next walk number five, then I hope you can see how lots of little things, if done by several people, can start a big movement.
Lent is traditionally a ‘dark’ time in the Church calendar. Flowers are removed and the altar is either stripped, or a purple cloth used, and yet we know that in just 38 days the Church will be filled with flowers again and the altar cloth will turn to white in celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
These are dark times, but the success of the vaccine and its continued rollout promises light itself. I heard last week that the Whitchurch Benefice is making plans for services to recommence in its Churches this Easter, subject to an easing of restrictions obviously and the Countryside Alliance is lobbying for Pubs to be allowed to re-open. I will leave you to decide which is more important!
The Committal at a Burial Service uses the words “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” and I couldn’t help but have a wry smile as I heard them. I think Mum has forgiven Dad some 25 years on. I shall be thinking of him this Lent and will rejoice on Easter Sunday in the knowledge that he, like so many others, now has a room in his Father’s house.
The cold snap seems to be over – the daffodils are blooming – perhaps it’s time for me to clean out the fireplace?