Monday, March 07, 2011

Ash Wednesday - and school budgets

This article is my submission to the Staffordshire Sentinel to appear in the "Yours Faithfully" column on March 9th 2011.

To read the published article click here.

Today Christians celebrate Ash Wednesday. It is not a "festival", but a rather sad and solemn day which marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a time traditionally focussed upon sin and forgiveness as we prepare for Easter, the high point of the Christian year.

For many Christians, Lent is a time for giving something up, making a special effort for recollection and reflection. For Catholics, the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday, has a special place as a day of fasting and abstinence, a time of cutting back, doing without, in a more particular way.

And there is also the custom that gives the name to the day - the celebration of the ashing, when ashes are smeared on our foreheads with the sign of Christ's cross..

Ashes are a sign of destruction, and of human weakness, and of the end of all things. They may seem quite negative. But as the ceremony to begin Lent, they also mark a beginning: the beginning of a struggle against evil; the start of a journey bearing Christ's cross; a journey which ends with the victory of Easter.

The importance of Ash Wednesday is such for the Catholic community that these ceremonies will be taking place not only in our Churches, but also in our schools. And it is this that gives me special pause for thought.

Ironically, we are celebrating the Ashing at a time when Schools are undergoing especially difficulty. Those who will be taking part in the ceremonies this week, are also looking long and hard at the recent tough budget settlements and considering the consequences. As we wear ashes on our foreheads, another kind of dissolution and destruction faces us: the reductions of hours, ending of temporary contracts and even enforced redundancies.

And of course, these anxieties don't only affect faith schools. These are worrying days for all those involved in education. Staff are concerned about their own livelihoods, and also how the work which needs to be done in schools will continue to be done.

It would be easy, and rather glib, for me as a priest to draw a very simplistic comparison. I could portray these severe cutbacks as just like the ashes of our religious ceremonies which will lead to new growth, a temporary destruction which might engender new opportunities.

It may be the case and I hope it will be, but it is all too simple.

For those who are caught in the midst of this difficulty - those who have mortgages to pay, those who will be forced out of jobs which provide a sense of purpose and social usefulness, those who no longer will get the full help and support which they truly need - for these the promise of better days later is cold comfort.

No, hope of the type which says "what goes around comes around" is no hope at all. It would make a mockery of the people and institutions affected.

Yet whatever difficulties the bankers and politicians may be plunging us into, there is still much cause for hope. Not hope because of the difficulties faced, but in the commitment that exists despite them. We should be optimistic not because of the contraction and cut backs, but because good people who care about children and families and their education strive to overcome them. We can take confidence in the determination of teachers and educational leaders to pursue their vocations whatever obstacles might be thrown their way.

I truly admire that. And perhaps, after all, that is the message of Ash Wednesday: not despairing in human weakness and frailty, but gathering the strength to overcome it.