Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Lent for extroverts 1: Go easy on the olive oil

Lent. That's giving up stuff, right? Sensory deprivation and all that. Denying yourself everything that brings a smile to your face, in the manner of monks. As an extrovert I've never taken naturally to Lent. My challenge this Lent will be to explore ways in which people like me might be able to engage with the fundamentals. How making room for God this Lent might lead to a truer engagement with the things of the Spirit. The last thing I need Lent to be is mean and pinching. Where can God be found? And what happens when you find Him in unusual places?

Take olive oil, that glorious, oozing, unctuous, green liquid so beloved of chefs. You can hardly cook anything without it these days, since the extrovert Jamie Oliver started slugging it around everywhere gleefully. It's almost a religion with him...What's going on there? It also happens to be a wonderful biblical image suggesting the Spirit, consecration, peace and healing.

So last year I was delighted to learn that the priestly preparation for leading an Ash Wednesday service included making up the ash for putting on foreheads by mixing it with olive oil.

There was no obvious ecclesiastical recipe for this, so feeling creative AND holy (am priestly pre-parer of actual ingredients for Lenten worship, just look at me) that afternoon I weighed in with my ash in a little pot, adding the oil joyfully and liberally, as per the enthusiastic Mr Oliver, and pretty soon it looked ready to be 'imposed' upon the foreheads of the penitent.

In the small Victorian church the congregation came forward to kneel at the altar rail. I dipped my finger in and made the first cross: 'Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.' The mark was not as black as one would expect black ash to be.

I did the next one - you could hardly see it. It was rather wet  and slippery. Maybe people would go home pleased the ashing hadn't left a dirty black mark on their foreheads. But maybe they'd feel Lenten-ly short changed. It didn't look at all 'ash-y'.

After about number four or five I noticed drips appearing on noses. Translucent black drips were sliding off foreheads and on to noses, even chins. I tried gouging out with my finger more sediment from the ash/oil mixture at the bottom of the pot. It didn't make any difference. There was just too much oil. Sadly there was no alternative liturgy for receiving an oily drop on your nose, instead of a cross on your forehead.

Was this yet more evidence that I just don't 'get' Lent?

I hope not. Here we are a year later, and I am attempting each day to ponder the mystery of God in all the things that give life - experience; friends; love; creation; books; ideas; music; even sadness - all that fascinating stuff extroverts thrive on. Meanwhile, if you're making preparation for ashing people any time soon, go easy on the olive oil.


  1. And make yours Fairly Traded Palestinian olive oil (Zaytoun and all good Church Fair Trade stalls) and you'll be even truer to the spirit of pondering the mystery of God in it all....

  2. Claire, I've seen the opposite of this with oil. At an Ash Wednesday service during my curacy, the woman next to me - a very Senior Lay Person - nudge me and said 'I never go up for ashing'. With my brand new pastoral antennae, I assumed this must relate to a spiritual problem and wondered what, if anything I should do. People started to go up the narrow aisle to be ashed, and returned with huge, dark, inky black crosses covering their whole foreheads, rather than the discreet grey crosses I was expecting. My neighbour nudged me and said 'That's why I don't go up - Brian always puts oil in it!' :D