Rituals are not things which immediately come to mind in our society. The younger ones among us may think of them in connection with Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Yet we do tend to surround ourselves with rituals or observances which convey or enact a certain meaning. A family may have certain rituals around eating together or celebrating birthdays. Rituals can mark the important or the less important. A marriage ceremony is a ritual celebration that marks the commitment of two people in their life together. New Year’s Eve has its distinctive rituals in Australia.
Schools, too, are places full of rituals. Commencement assemblies and Masses, Valete for our Year Twelves, the ‘red and black army’ at sporting events, the Head of the River, first night of productions, the singing of Sursum Corda, are just some of the rituals that come to mind at Xavier College.
And the living out of religious faith is populated by rituals. One of the most distinctive of Catholic rituals is the marking with ashes at the start of the season of Lent, itself preceded in many cultures by Shrove Tuesday and the celebration of Mardi Gras. When I worked at our University Colleges in Brisbane and Melbourne, I was struck by how many uni students would come to Ash Wednesday Services, even though it marked them out as Catholics in a way that seldom happens in Australia. They would proudly wear their ashes on campus.
The commencement of the season of Lent, the forty days leading up to the celebration of Holy Week, begins with the ritual of ashes. The ashes themselves are made by burning some of the palms used on Palm Sunday the previous year to celebrate the beginning of Holy Week. In the ritual of using the mark of the cross in ashes, we express our faith by standing together, in our human solidarity, acknowledging the truth that our mortality is real and is shared. Ashes remind us all that all human beings share a brokenness, that we all are sinners and that we will all experience death. We stand together in our shared need for redemption – human beings, all of us, are capable of great selfishness and self-centeredness, of hurting others, of not being people who love all the time. At the heart of the spirituality that has shaped our school lies this mystery of God’s love poured out for us in the Son, crucified and risen. And so it is important that we mark within the rhythm of the school year the season of Lent, and we do so with ashes.
In our rather hectic world, filled with its innumerable deadlines and an overload of information, the idea of forty days of preparation for the celebration of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus may seem somewhat quaint, anachronistic or unreal. Yet, more than ever, we need to be intentional in creating space to nurture our faith. The very busyness of our lives can create an unsatisfied spiritual hunger.
Moreover, some of the pervading themes of Lent do resonate with modern concerns. The very idea of making time and listening to another (and this is the heart of prayer) is increasingly identified as the great challenge facing individuals in all relationships. Our relationships, including our relationship with God, need that nourishment that comes from making time for communication.
The theme of reconciliation, moreover, evokes our contemporary challenge to work for justice. Whether we look here in Australia to the challenges we face as a people, or to overseas racial, sectarian or political conflicts, we know that we human beings always stand in need of reconciliation.
Fasting or giving up some small indulgence carries added meaning in a world where the gap between rich and poor remains a scandal. It has added relevance today when sustainability is integral to debates around the environment.
The season of Lent invites all of us to re-discover our spiritual roots and re-connect with our Church community in our common journey of faith. It is an invitation to deepen our relationship with the Lord. Our celebration of Ash Wednesday enacts our school community’s discipleship; it remains for each of us to pursue the invitation to personalise that discipleship.
It is all too easy to think of Church in terms of buildings or as an institution, and sometimes a clumsy one at that. In the last few weeks the Church has not received the best of press as an institution. There are undoubted failures on our part, and it can be infuriating that we don’t seem to learn quickly enough from mistakes and failures. It is fair to say also that sometimes scrutiny crosses over to unfounded and vitriolic commentary that would not be tolerated against other like communities.
There is another face of the Church, the good news as it were, that receives comparatively little media coverage. The St Vincent De Paul Society, for example, has been a mainstay of the relief effort for communities and individuals affected by the recent bushfires. Its work goes largely unsung and it generally avoids the spotlight. But it is Australia’s largest non-government welfare agency.
A second face of the Church is Caritas, which most of us associate with Project Compassion boxes eating up our loose change during Lent. Caritas’ Project Compassion reminds us of our common responsibility to the hungry and marginalised of our world, and that care for those in need is not just a matter for governments but for all of us. Project Compassion is a practical way to help make a difference, and in terms of the amount of what we give that reaches those in need (as distinct from advertising, administration etc), Catholic charities have an unsurpassed record. The network of charities under the Caritas umbrella is the world’s largest non-Government provider of international aid. With membership in 162 countries, Caritas works without regard to race or religion, and its members (40,000 paid staff and 125,000 volunteers) directly help 24 million people a year with an aid budget of around $9 billion dollars.
It is tempting to dismiss the Christian message as irrelevant, or to downplay its underpinning of the school and its culture, especially in the face of scandal and disappointment. But its message lies much deeper than our institutional footprint or the frailties of its human messengers, and this is one of the lessons of Christian history.
In the 1930s, for example, Europe was under siege, intellectually and politically, from the great totalitarian ideologies of Nazism, Fascism and Soviet Communism. Many of the young were caught up in the appeal of these ideologies, and Christianity was dismissed by many as a failed force. The conflagration of World War Two would flow from the power that these ideologies exercised on the passions, imagination and loyalty of so many people. Even in the university circles of Cambridge, in a student society called the Apostles, a number of young men were fired by the appeal of an ideology and were to become among the most famous spies of the Cold War (Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt). The future appeared to be in the hands of these movements and the Christian message, then, as perhaps now, seemed quaint and past its used-by date.
In another university, however, another group of young writers met and talked, sometimes in a pub, sometimes in their rooms. Calling themselves Inklings, these Oxford students seemed a long way from the relevance of their peers at Cambridge. They were interested in their Christian faith, Catholic and Anglican, and in the imaginative world of literature. Yet today, while the Philbys are foot-notes in history books, and the political ideologies of the 1930s have largely passed into the pages of history, the Christian imagination of the Inklings continues to exercise the imagination of new generations and finds new expression in the medium of film. J R Tolkien, in Lord of the Rings, and C S Lewis, in the Chronicles of Narnia, witness to the abiding power of the Christian gospel and its hold over the human imagination and heart. The themes of redemption, sacrificial love, a conflict between good and evil, discipleship are interwoven into the adventurous fantasy of these two writers. These themes drew on the faith of Tolkien and Lewis, and they resonate with the great themes of the Lenten season.
The season of Lent calls us again to reflect on the meaning to be found in the gospel and the call to a more intimate relationship with the Lord.
By Fr Chris Middleton SJ, Rector of Xavier College.