It is time to give up all your pleasures and to think gloomy thoughts about sin and death.
It is the big build up to Easter when we can all go wild again, gorge ourselves on chocolate and crack open that bottle of champagne that will have been chilling in the fridge for forty days and forty nights.
Well, for some people. Lent is not for me and, I suspect, not for you either.
It was different when I was a child. Then I looked “through a glass darkly” and got deeply impressed by all the mystery and ceremony of the Christian calendar.
I believed it all, naturally. Just like I believed in Father Christmas and Donald Duck.
Well, I still believe in Donald Duck..he was always my favourite Walt Disney character…so wild, anarchic and transparently egotistical. He was my role model and every duck I see these days is just a cheap imitation of him.
I saw him a couple of years ago, fighting with another duck over a female by a large pond at the side of a road. I wanted him to win, of course but the real world took over and he ran out into the road and got crushed by a passing car. Poor Donald.
We are supposed to pray a lot during Lent….would it be blasphemy to pray for Donald Duck?
When I was eight years old, I was sent to a boarding school and, every Sunday, we were taken in a strict crocodile line to church.
There was a large arch between the congregation and the professionals, the priests, and over this archway were twelves life size plaster statues all painted in bright primary colours.
The middle one was Jesus on his cross but on each side in a perfect straight line stood the Apostles – not Judas Iscariot of course because he was the bad guy. Now I think about it, I do believe there were six on each side of Jesus. Could the priest have taken pity on poor old Judas after all? These days we see him more as a hot blooded freedom fighter who got carried away and involved in something way over his head.
Back to those statues.
At around this time, I discovered the works of Agatha Christie, the crime writer.
I was particularly absorbed by her story about the Ten Little Indian Men.
In the book, ten people are stranded in one of those mansions where murders always happen and on this particular night each of them was murdered one by one and every time someone died, one of those ten little Indian plaster statues was found broken.
During the sermons at this church, I studied those plaster saints. It was an obvious leap , I guess, to see them as the little Indian men. Especially as most of them came to pretty gruesome deaths.
At that age, I had heard enough about martyrdom to know the drill: crucifixion, upright or upside down, stones, arrows, fire, that Catherine wheel and, I think it was St. Lawrence who was flayed.
So you can imagine what I was thinking about as I watched those statues every Sunday.
Also, with an alarming ignorance of the Biblical story, it was always Judas Iscariot whodunit.
Maybe, I allowed them to have some pretty bizarre deaths but, for the eight year old me, it made them real and, I think, it made them more impressive.
Their bravery has stayed with me and I think, subconsciously perhaps, I go back to those plaster martyrs when I read about our own modern freedom fighters. Those men and women who stand up for their principles no matter what pain they have to suffer as a consequence.
These days many of them act in the full knowledge that a comfy seat in Heaven is just not there waiting for them.
I was never very good at imagining Heaven. It always sounded boring and, even worse, much too hierarchical. Would I really want to sit in a line underneath all the especially good guys, teacher’s pets, the Apostles, Saints and Martyrs? Lack of imagination I know but even to my easily impressed ears, the priests really didn’t do a good PR job.
Hell, of course, was much more exciting.
Satan and all his horde of devils were everywhere. I even had to check under my bed before going to sleep at night. It was the obvious place for them to hide.
It was only much later when someone told me that the head master of that school was sacked for being a member of some extreme and, I suppose, dodgy, Christian fundamentalist cult.
Every night we had to kneel by our beds and pray for the forgiveness of our sins. I have to confess though that many of what he said were sins, were things I not only didn’t want to be forgiven for but I didn’t want to stop practising either.
These things stay with you.
Why do we still like those movies? The Exorcist, Damian, The Sound of Music? – woops, sorry about the last one but I would rather go to Hell than see that again.
So here we are on Ash Wednesday, with Lent casting its black veil across the future. Maybe it is not that bad an idea to have a day, if not 40 of them, to think serious thoughts, contemplate the great unknown, even do something worthwhile.
Now that the only statuettes that we crave are called Oscar, it is tricky going along with our ancient religious culture….some of its thoughts are worth preserving though. Even if it only a symbolic ritual.
I was always impressed, as a child, when the clergy placed a circle of dust on my forehead. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, they used to say.
I wondered what devilish end Judas had in mind for me and, later that night, I looked under the bed.