Ash Wednesday is coming up (6 February 2008; also Waitangi Day in Aotearoa New Zealand). The beginning of Lent. An opportunity for Anglican and Catholic churches to combine for a service. When we burn last year's Palm Sunday crosses in order to make the ash to mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross, we signal that Lent is a season of denial (take up your cross, deny self, and follow Jesus). But perhaps alongside 'denial' we should always place the word 'discipleship', so Lent is a season of denial and discipleship. Some things are given up for the sake of the greater good of our spiritual maturity and for the sake of a purer devotion to Jesus; but other things are learned and taken up for the same reason.
Denial and discipleship goes against the grain of a consumer, let your feelings hang out culture. But could they be vital to the future wellbeing of our world? One of the features of this summer has been a spate of violence - murders, beatings, shootings - to say nothing of vandalism and arson. Our politicians are trying to get on top of it with new educational initiatives. That will help. But so would denial and discipleship. Denying, for instance, my right to be consumed with anger or my sense that I am justified when angry in delivering a beating. Discipleship is me recognising someone greater than me whom I resolve to follow: the centre of my universe is not me any longer.
Relative to all church attendance probably only a few Christians will make it to an Ash Wednesday service. Proportionate to the whole population there will scarcely be anyone in church on Wednesday evening. Yet in the service in which ashes are imposed lies the secret to the transformation of our society. For when we deny self for the sake of Christ and determine to be his disciples then we enter not just one way of being human but a new way which is empowered by the Holy Spirit.