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Ash Wednesday and the consolation of suffering


TODAY is Ash Wednesday, which marks the first day of Lent. It is traditionally observed with fasting or abstinence from meat, and many Christians attend services at which their foreheads are marked with ash as a sign of grief, both in the sense of mourning and in expressing sorrow for sins.

Lent, Holy Week and finally Easter, when Christians celebrate the triumphal resurrection of Jesus, are embedded into the Western consciousness, and yet one cannot escape the feeling that the Lent-Easter experience has become increasingly distant from the popular conception of the world. 

The notion of divine suffering is a strange paradox, but this beautiful mystery is demonstrably true in part because it is entirely the opposite of what one would expect from God. Christ alone is able to offer up our (and His) suffering humanity in a redeeming sacrifice. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from Flossenbürg concentration camp shortly before his execution on April 9, 1945:

‘God lets Himself be pushed out of the world on to the Cross . . . weak and powerless in the world, (which) is precisely the way, the only way, He is with us and helps us. Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings in the hands of a Godless world.’ 

The thought that our own sufferings can unite us to Christ is a strange consolation, like the warm hum of a nettle sting. The prospect of meeting in a chilly church when a man in a robe smears your forehead with ash, so that you can deprive yourself of booze, or chocs, or fags, or sex, or social media, or gossip, to celebrate the death and rising from the grave of a Messianic carpenter from an obscure province of Jewry two millennia ago is as unappealing as it sounds. However, it is this very suffering and death which mystically brings life to the world when Jesus rises, God and man, to renew our humanity and unite it to God. Christ’s passion is a sublime transmogrification of human misery; God enters into the suffering which our primordial sin brought into the world, and from his death emerges a ‘terrible beauty’ (as Yeats described Ireland’s burgeoning, ironically timed independence) which makes relationship and union with God possible.

Unlike Christmas, which has essentially been turned into a commercial bunfight deprived of any spiritual meaning (said every conservative Christian ever), Easter has not, save for a few bunnies and many chocolate eggs, been glamorised and warped for economic gain. Christmas is replete with marketable imagery: a cute baby whom choirs of adorable schoolchildren lullaby to sleep, snow, reindeer, high sugar levels, light in the darkness etc. Vague derivation from Norse myth or Coca-Cola advertising is hazily palatable, and everyone loves an excuse to booze at a time when it gets dark at half past two. The birth of a child is something everyone can relate to, and the vision of the infant Jesus snugly wrapped in a manger is far less offensive than its culmination in a country rabbi stripped naked, flayed to the bone and nailed to a crossbeam whilst indifferent legionaries spit and play dice beneath his nail-rent feet.

Easter is an all-or-nothing feast. It can’t be hummed along to the way Christmas can, non-committally but glad that there is enough of a pool of tradition in which to dip one’s toe. The searing emotion of Good Friday is either supremely beautiful or it is incalculably ugly. The man slowly asphyxiating is either God made flesh for our redemption to be met with awed prostration, or a sickening spectacle from which mothers ought to shield their children’s eyes as they hurry them by. If Christ is not risen, then nothing He claimed need have any bearing upon us, and we are liberated of the weighty burden of discipleship (Matt.16:24). By the same token, if Christ is not risen the life and salvation He promises are mere fables (John 6:40). As Paul writes to the Corinthians: ‘If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching in vain, and your faith is also in vain . . . if Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain; you are still in your sins’ (1 Cor. 15:14&17).

However, if He is the God and Saviour He claims to be, the world has been redeemed. If He is who He says He is, fear, death, sin, and evil have been ultimately destroyed and our life transformed beyond all recognition (2 Tim. 1:10). If you are looking for a way to live an uneasily brilliant life, follow the Christ who will be triumphant on Easter morn as we declare with thunderous Heaven ‘Christ is Risen!’ 

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Harry Blanchard
Harry Blanchard
Harry Blanchard is a candidate for Holy Orders and aspiring writer.

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