God our Father,
you create us from the dust of the earth:
grant that these ashes may be for us
a sign of our penitence
and a symbol of our mortality;
for it is by your grace alone
that we receive eternal life
in Jesus Christ our Saviour.
This year, Ash Wednesday is on 17th February*. This year, due to coronavirus restrictions, I am unable to impose ashes upon foreheads. This year, some question whether a reminder of our mortality is what is needed. And this year, I approach this day against the backdrop of watching Russell T Davies’ incredible It’s a Sin.
To be clear, this five-part series depicting the lives of a group of (mostly) gay young men living (and far too often tragically dying) through the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s won’t be suitable for everyone. There are a lot of explicit sex scenes, though these are in no way gratuitous, but integral and essential to the story being told, the lives being honoured. There are painful scenes of the void between parents and sons, the gulf between the necessary institutions of society and a compassionate society. You’d need to make your own decision on whether to watch or not. My wife and I are watching with our teenage sons (and the only reason we aren’t watching with our teenage daughter is that she has already left home).
Ash Wednesday is about truth and grace: about acknowledging our mortality in its heart-bursting joy and heart-breaking pain; about recognising our failures and the complex ways in which we wound one another—through weakness, through negligence, through our own deliberate fault—and receiving forgiveness for guilt and cleansing for shame. It’s a Sin is a touching exploration of all of these things. (It also sits well with the life-lessons of Ecclesiastes, the Old Testament book the lectionary for Morning Prayer is working its way through at the moment.)
I do not believe that HIV/AIDS was God’s judgement on homosexuality. I am more inclined to believe that it was God’s judgement on wider society for our refusal to embrace gay sons, though I am not convinced even of that. In any case, there are times when our hearts must be broken and made new. I’m not sure how far we have come in British culture, in terms of sons (in particular) talking openly and honestly to their parents about, well, anything of importance to them. I’m not sure how far we have come in how we face up to a mysterious and terrifying epidemic that is spreading through the community, either.
There are times when there is nothing that we can do to change the circumstances, and we must choose between daring to love fiercely or pushing away unbearable pain. The pain is real, and beyond bearing in our own strength, whichever way we decide. We are but dust, and to dust we shall return; but, for now at least, we are animated dust—dust that, as an eloquent friend of mine puts it, sings. Oh, the songs!
There are times when we can, and must, change circumstances, at least to a mitigating extent; where we must reckon with both our responsibility towards our neighbour, and our limits. 100,000 deaths with Covid since last Ash Wednesday would suggest that we need a different approach to bravado. That we need this moment this year as much as any other.
If you have not already watched It’s a Sin, and if you can bear it, it might be something to consider as we contemplate our lives in the shadow of an ashen cross.
Lord, have mercy.
*The date of Ash Wednesday moves around, tied, as it is, to the date of Easter Sunday, which is, in turn, tied to the lunar cycle; in contrast to, say, Christmas Day, which is always the same date, and instead wanders around the days of the week.