Posted by: Titus Presler | February 13, 2013

An Ash Wednesday in Peshawar

We had two services in the Edwardes College Chapel on this Ash Wednesday, one at the regular time of 7:40am before early classes, the other at 1pm for those coming in for afternoon classes.  There was a turnout of about 30 students and faculty at the early service and about 40 in the afternoon – good in a total College Christian population of about 200.

Since many students planned on being in their parishes for congregational services with ashes, we simply used the devotional side of the liturgy of the day, readily available from the Episcopal prayerbooks sent to us by SPCK-USA from All Saints Church in Tupelo, Mississippi, to which we have frequent recourse for Morning Prayer, the other offices and special liturgies such as today’s.  We also use the Church of Pakistan forms for Morning Prayer and Eucharist, but the USAmerican BCP has a generous wealth of material.

For scripture we used today’s epistle, 2 Corinthians 5.20-6.10, for its stress on reconciliation, sorely needed in this part of the world as well as in the lives of all of us as individuals.  Paul’s soaring rhetoric – “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities . . . by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love . . .” – reminded me of the passionate Urdu and English rhetoric of students in today’s intercollegiate Declamation Contest as students truly declaimed about the trials and tribulations of life in Pakistan today. 

Paul’s peroration on apostolic suffering – “We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see, we are alive . . . as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” – reminded me of the trials of Christians in Pakistan and of the ecumenical Church of Pakistan, the sponsoring body of this College, which resulted from the union of Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians in 1970.

We had an interesting discussion about Lent, what I called the Christian Ramadan, in our Management Team meeting this morning, today’s interlocutors all being Muslim because the other Christian on our team was ill.  “So how is fasting practiced among you?” I was asked.  After noting that Jesus took fasting for granted but cautioned against making a show of it, I replied that there is a lot of variation among Christians, with some people fasting in some way throughout Lent, others on Fridays, some not much at all.

In Pakistan, by contrast, fasting is well nigh universal among Muslims during Ramadan, or Ramzan as it is called here, at least in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.  This has a major impact on working life, especially when Ramzan occurs during the hot season, which it has the last couple of years.  “We have no choice about fasting,” said one participant, “we all do it.”  We didn’t go further into types of self-denial beyond selective abstaining from food, but those are also shared by many Muslims and Christians.

After the afternoon service I explained to a group of women students and one faculty member, all Muslim, what we had been up to while they had been waiting to talk with me about something else.  My reflection about acknowledging our sinfulness in penitence elicited understanding responses, for the concepts echoed their own.  When I described the imposition of ashes, the woman faculty member murmured knowledgeably, “Yes, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’”

The 4pm Urdu service at St. John’s Cathedral had about 400 people attending, and the passionately delivered sermon touched on classic Lenten themes of repenting fasting, praying, and caring for the poor.  While most Church of Pakistan services have strikingly equal numbers of men and women, today’s congregation was about 2/3 women, doubtless because many men were still at work.  As usual, there were lots of young people – it is difficult to categorize by age any regular CoP liturgical gathering, so evenly are people distributed from children to old age.

But no ashes!  The liturgy, in fact, had no distinctive parts for Ash Wednesday, apart from the Collect of the Day, reflecting probably a lack of such in the CoP liturgical materials.  By contrast, Roman Catholics at Edwardes clearly were expecting ashes at their congregations this afternoon.

Of course, even some Anglicans on a global basis have had reservations about ashes.  Morris Arnold, late suffragan bishop of Massachusetts, who ordained me priest, was adamant that Jesus’ strictures against any external show of devotion in today’s gospel from the Sermon on the Mount argued for the suppression of the imposition of ashes.  I disagreed with him but respected his view.

So I am content today with a Muslim woman murmuring my own church’s words to me: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”



  1. Thank you for this. So good!

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