A day out in Oxford - a regular favourite for somewhere to wander for a day whenever I take time off. There’s plenty of art to enjoy, fabulous bookshops to plunder and - more often than not - the chance of a lunchtime chamber or organ recital to take in.
Today it’s Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Oxford does churches like few other places. Not only are there the glorious historic churches whose spires help give the skyline its dreaming nickname; there are also plenty of colleges offering equally splendid, equally beautiful chapels.
Ash Wednesday with its solemnity and tradition is widely-observed and the choice, represented on the usual posters tied to the railings, is broad. Exeter College, in offering some of the best music ever written, just gets the nod though in truth any of a dozen others would have been a treat. They all have choirs, they all have treasures - like college rowing eights taking to the river or quiz teams taking on Jeremy Paxman, there’s a subtle whiff of competition here.
History is everywhere in these colleges. It’s in the buildings and the settings obviously. Centuries of students and dons have hurried across snowy quads, college scarves and surplices fluttering behind them to join in ancient music and even older words. Preserved over those centuries the atmosphere within is also one of history. Old master paintings, wood worn with polishing, magnificent stained glass and just enough candlelight to see by.
There is a sense, it has to be said, that this is non-participatory church. Perhaps it’s in the esoteric nature of college ritual, perhaps so much history keeps us at arms length, perhaps it’s the fact that the congregation is drawn from transitory students and even more transitory visitors and knows it will never come together in this way again. There is a definite feeling of being on the outside and watching what others do. This sits rather awkwardly with Ash Wednesday and its very personal commitment to faith and self-restraint.
But included or not, it’s impossible not to be moved by a stunningly clear and soaring singing of Allegri’s Miserere while foreheads are marked by the small ash cross reminding all that we come from dust and will return that way in time. Having earlier seen a number of people around the city wearing these marks, it strikes me that the Christian faith doesn’t have that many outwardly visible personal symbols such as this.
Lent - the period of fasting and study before Easter - has come to mean many different things in different walks of life. The very strict observance of fasting has, for most, become a combination of cutting back on excess while increasing prayer and study. Giving something up for Lent is now one of those things grabbed by the secular and often observed in ignorance of its meaning or place in the Christian faith. People who have never been near a church will suddenly declare themselves to be free from smoking or drink, adamant about shunning the cake trolley or crisps and so on. Lent it would seem is simply an excuse for trying to be a little less unhealthy in precisely the way you should have done anyway. A bit like the way the words ‘charity’ and ‘challenge’ now seem to be convenient passports to the look-at-me generation’s need to show off. These people, ironically, have no problem displaying the symbols of their piety.
Personally I’m struggling a bit on things to give up. Recent revelations at the doctor’s haven’t left me with many excesses to trim. I don’t smoke either. I could give up sugar-free, fat-free plain rice cakes but I think even God would be stretched to find that an impressive sacrifice. So perhaps it’s the study route. An earlier church visit provided me with a forty-day supply of thoughts to ponder. I decide I’ll do my best to avoid distraction and stick to that.
Then back out into the Oxford evening. Restaurants are starting to fill, covered market stalls promising lavish treats, pubs already ringed by outdoor smokers, bookshop windows still calling me in. Oxford may do the start of Lent beautifully, but it also provides the well-intentioned with every opportunity to fall at the first hurdle.