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I’m going to make a statement about human beings and invite you to think about it for a moment. “All human beings are of equal value.”

I am hoping that your first, instinctive response was, “Yes, of course they are, Father Theo; that’s obvious!” But I wonder if your next thought was, “We don’t always treat them equally.”

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of the Lent: the season preparing us for Easter. The aim of the season of Lent is to have 40-days of reflection, of preparation for Easter, of thinking about our priorities in life. It is, above all, a chance to reflect on the way we treat other people.

If you take Lent seriously, you are also invited to give something up. When I was growing up, some years I would choose to give up chocolate for Lent. It was a reminder to me not to take the lovely things of life for granted. I still remember my father making a point of saying that the money saved by giving up something should be donated to charity. The Anglican Board of Mission was his charity of choice during Lent and he made sure that he personally donated to it each year. Our Hot Cross Bun fundraiser later this term goes to support it.

Donations to charities and support of charities remind us that there are others. This year I decided to choose between chocolate and coffee. However, I’m on decaf now and giving that up would be too easy, so I chose chocolate.

Lent is a reminder that self-discipline has a place, a significant place, in our lives. Other faith traditions have similar times of self-denial and self-discipline. Ramadan in Islam is the most obvious. There are some similarities in the preparation for the Jewish Passover too.

For Christians Ash Wednesday is the start of this time of reflection. It is quite a confronting day, if you take it seriously. In Matthew 6: 19–21, Jesus says to his listeners, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth’ and ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ It is confronting to hear these statements, because a great deal of our society’s focus is precisely on the accumulation of possessions as the end goal.

And yet… what truly counts in life is the way we look after and care for one another, treating each other equally and with justice. The goals you strive for, the wonderful, beautiful things that you will do over the course of your life, will have much more meaning, immeasurably more meaning, if they are focused on loving your neighbour, as much as you love yourself. You need both.

At our both our Senior and Junior School Ash Wednesday services, I invited the students and staff to come forward and be anointed with ash. The ash is made by burning palm leaves and palm crosses. Palms branches were placed on the ground to smooth the road, when Jesus rode on the donkey as he entered Jerusalem the week before his death. There is a deliberate irony built into our Christian worship during this season of Lent. Jesus enters Jerusalem at the start of what we now call Holy Week (week 9 for us this term) and he is cheered on by the crowds. Yet, within the week, he ends up on the cross, because his message of humility and love was too difficult for the crowds to hear, especially the Roman authorities. His death on the cross is the ultimate sign of humility.

As the students and staff were anointed with ash, the words were said, “Remember that you are dust. Commit yourself again to truth, respect, and service.” The ash made from burning palm leaves and palm crosses is a reminder to be humble. It is reminder that we are all equal. It is both an invitation and a challenge to treat others as we would like to be treated – with love and respect.

The Reverend Dr Theo McCall
School Chaplain