Ashes to Ashes

Eight years ago, I was spending Lent with my Dad in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. On one occasion, he had said to me “When the time comes, have this said for me, Son, will you?” 'Dust to dust, ashes to ashes'"  

What he had left out on that occasion was “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life,” these words coming from the traditional form of an Anglican funeral service. 

It was a sort of tacit acceptance of the transition between this world and the next. Lent seemed interminable that year and by the time Easter had rolled around, I spent Holy Week dutifully organising his funeral. 

The organist had been instructed “I know it's a funeral, but no funereal music, please: belt out the final verse of Thine Be The Glory, like the great life affirming Easter hymn of resurrection that it is.”  

And I think of him and miss him every day, when I am driving in my taxi. It never gets any easier, despite the passage of years and the relative calm after the relentless storm of a family legal dispute, which absurdly and obscenely for a working class man from Oxford, ended up at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. 

In those days, when it was still possible to make a living from driving a taxi in Abingdon at night, I was sleeping during the day and working much of the night, which made easier some of the practices to mark Lent. 

These days, I tend not to make up my mind until the first day of Lent itself.  Usually, I would take on (or give up) two or three things to mark this season of introspection and reflection, before Easter. 

At least one I keep secret, two I might talk about, if they come up in taxi conversation.   It makes it less likely to give up entirely, when almost invariably, I stumble along the way. Thanks to a conversation on Twitter, I did only recently discover that there is a sort of exemption on Sundays and also that the Archbishop of New Orleans states that it is permissible to eat alligator on Fridays in Lent. 

Tonight's solemnity of Ash Wednesday, when the church opens its doors in the evening, marks the beginning of Lent itself.  A simple and dignified service is followed by what is grandly termed 'Imposition of Ashes'.  It is a small mark on the forehead, made of ash and a small amount of oil. 

In previous years, I've shied away from it.  But tonight, I will once more go forward and allow for me, a rare form of human contact, thinking on those who have gone before, who have made me who I am. 

It is accompanied by some of the most powerful words I have ever heard in church "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

As published in the Herald Series (Abingdon, Didcot, Wallingford, Wantage & Grove) on Ash Wednesday, 01 March 2017