Christopher Smith on those Ash Wednesday cup-cakes

Do you ever get the feeling that the modern world is finding it difficult to grow up? I’ve just been sent a flyer by the Redemptorists for their new publication called Pope Francis Notebook. As far as I can tell, this offering is basically a glorified colouring book. Don’t take my word for it – here’s what the blurb says: ‘This notebook offers the opportunity to reflect on 100 of His Holiness’ most widely shared quotes in a creative way. On every other page is a thought-provoking passage with an intricate frame for you to colour in whilst you meditate. Relax, unleash your inner creativity, clear your mind and let the words of Pope Francis touch your heart. A wonderful gift for adults and teens.’ Quite how colouring like a small child is capable of unleashing anyone’s inner creativity is, frankly, beyond me.

But it turns out that this is merely piggy-backing on a trend – a trend for colouring books for adults. They’re all over Amazon. Some look a bit new-ageish for my liking, some are aimed at animal lovers or gardeners, or patrons of particular department stores, or devotees of particular films and television programmes. There are sweary ones and smutty ones, mindfulness ones and calmness ones, cake-baking ones and dream-catching ones, ones for mums, ones for blokes, flowers, sea creatures, and Christmas without the important bit. I am faintly appalled by the whole business, although it must be said that my curate thinks they’re aimed at stressed executives who need help doodling whilst they take part in high-powered teleconferences. I can’t imagine how they can hold the telephone under their chins all that time in order to be able to keep changing their felt-tips, but perhaps I’m missing something.

Meanwhile, in Leicester, a kind of ecclesiastical version of the colouring book has been on offer. On Ash Wednesday, whilst you and I were trying to do what the Church does (which is to say observe a day of fasting and abstinence, however imperfectly) ‘clergy and other staff from the Diocese of Leicester gave away cake to commuters at Leicester Train Station’. I know this from the diocese’s own website, and I regret the passing of ‘railway station’ almost as much as what comes next: ‘The cake was offered as a symbol of God’s generosity with the aim being to challenge the perception of Lent as a time to give things up, and instead try to embody God’s generous giving to the people of Leicester.’

Sometimes I worry that readers of this column must think I’m making it all up, so let me quote on: ‘The cake was wrapped in a printed napkin with [the] words “Have Your Cake and Eat it! This cake is a gift from John, the Bishop of Leicester [although he is in fact the Bishop of Brixworth], to mark the beginning of Lent. Lent is traditionally a time to give up yummy things, like chocolate, so why is the church giving away cake today of all days? This cake is a symbol of the freedom, purpose and fulfilment that Jesus came to give to you, and like this cake it is a free gift for you to accept. You can eat this cake to celebrate and say thank you to God for all the good things in your life, and particularly for the gift of Jesus.”‘

Where to begin? Whose bright idea was that? Who, sitting in the diocesan office, can conceivably have thought that was a good idea? Have we so dumbed-down everything in modern life that we have to have colouring books rather than novels, or cake on Ash Wednesday instead of ash? Isn’t the clue in the name?

Many of us have, in the last couple of years, been interested to see the reach of the ‘Ashes to Go’ idea, and I recall seeing the clergy of Christ the Saviour, Ealing, on the cover of this very magazine last year ashing commuters at their local tube station. Indeed, one of the few things the modern world ‘gets’ about Christians is that we give things up for Lent. Everybody now knows about Ramadan too, when Muslims take neither food nor water between sunrise and sunset, and people have a kind of folk memory of Lent as a season of fasting before Easter; in a curious inversion, they probably look on it as a kind of religious equivalent of ‘dry January’.

So at exactly the moment when the world around us has arrived back at an (albeit imperfect) understanding of fasting, the diocese of Leicester has told people that eating ‘yummy things’ on Ash Wednesday as a symbol of freedom in Christ is more important than boring old fasting. Perhaps they are afraid that it must look odd to the modern, secular world, a tiny hang-over from Old Testament times, when kings and peoples rent their garments, and sat in sack-cloth and ashes to show their repentance before God. And perhaps there has been a trivialisation of the idea of ‘sin’, and a rejection of the positive aspect of guilt. The result is an assumption that only murderers and investment bankers are sinful, and for them only retribution will atone.

But our Lenten journey has something different to teach us. The ashes are not put on us in silence; the priest says something profound to each of us as it happens: ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return; repent and believe in the Gospel’. I did waste a few moments wondering what the text would have been in Leicester. ‘Remember you are flour and to flour you shall return’, perhaps. Or we could grow up a bit, and continue on our Lenten journey mindful of our mortality, mindful of our propensity for sin, and grateful for the forgiveness that is freely offered when we repent. ND