Virtue-signalling. Heard this phrase? It’s where people show how virtuous, how good, how charitable, how tolerant, how “woke,” how whatever they are, by the posts they put up on social media, by the magazines or newspapers they very are seen to read, by the slogans on their t-shirts, or by their professed horror at causes or movements or politicians that society expects us to hate. It could be a MeToo hashtag, a Brexit badge, a European Union flag, a Make America Great Again baseball cap, an “I hate Trump” tattoo on your bottom – whatever: these ‘virtue signals’ are meant to show off by association how good the person is who is making them.
I was not always a Christian. I certainly wasn’t brought up one. My only experience of church as a child and teenager was through school, and to be honest with you, I didn’t think much of it. At its worst, it looked to me very much like a club for the old and the bold, the great and the good, or even the self-righteous saved, to show everyone how wonderful they were. Church, and with it God, seemed to me – at the very best – an irrelevance.
So what was it in my mid-twenties that finally made me decide to be baptised into the Christian Church?
It’s hard to put a finger on it.
Partly it was the church that I found, which was offering something called ‘Vespers and meditation:’ I didn’t know what Vespers was, but with my Buddhist leanings, the ‘meditation’ bit sounded appealing. Vespers turned out to be a beautiful, candlelit service of evening prayer, chanted with no organ, with clouds of incense and a long silence half way through – and I loved it.
Partly, it had something to do with meeting the young priest – my own age, with his own hair and teeth and everything! – and all the other, quite naughty and fun-loving Christians of mixed ages who went to the pub together every Sunday after mass for lunch.
But in large part, it was because that church seemed to stand so strongly against so much of the distractions that modern life has to offer. It wasn’t entertaining. It didn’t have TV screens or a live band or trendy vicars, it didn’t really have much heating: it had old prayer books, a committed choir full of university students, lots of incense and caring priests who gave sharp, witty, short sermons.
With all its exotic ritual, this was not a “respectable” church, and certainly not a rich one. Other people thought we were a bit suspect, spiky Anglo-Catholics, not proper C of E Protestants. But we didn’t care. We didn’t go there to be seen, we went there to kneel; to pray with utter seriousness; to worship in the full beauty of holiness, without the traditional English embarrassment.
Years later, my church in Camden Town, London, was of the same tradition (daily mass, plainsong, incense, solemnity, beauty) combined with an intense mission to serve the very poor and vulnerable. The teaching of the Church was put into practice, by a very diverse congregation, and without boasting about it. If you saw Glenn, a high-flying lawyer, you would never know he gave his spare time to be Church Warden. You wouldn’t know that Jeannie, who cleaned the church, gave up her time to spend with cancer-sufferers; that Jane ran a free legal drop-in service in the Church; that homeless Keith with no shoes kept watch over the church and looked after youngsters new to the streets; that Charity went out to visit the sick; that Cathy ran the church’s drop-in mornings for the homeless; that Marion organised a team of mentally ill gardeners. You wouldn’t know, and they wouldn’t tell you unless you asked. They weren’t there to “virtue signal.”
I think Church life at its best has something of a Lenten feel to it. As Jesus said, Lent is not about fasting to show off, for posting your little sacrifices up on Instagram to show off how good you are. Those who fast so that people see how good they are at fasting, who give so that people see how much they are giving, who pray so everyone knows how pious and holy they are – they have had their reward already.
So what is the reward for quiet, unannounced acts of prayer and charity and fasting?
First, let’s not be misled: God does not award Brownie points for good behaviour. Lent, and the Christian life as a whole, are not about ‘earning’ a place in heaven: that is a free gift offered by Jesus on the Cross, not something that we can work for.
Rather, prayer, fasting and charity – like the mass itself – are a way of joining in with, participating in, God’s self-giving love for his creation, especially for the poor. The ashes we may receive on our heads today, with millions of Christians and non-Christians all around the world, are a not a virtue signal. Rather, they are a sign of just what divine love means.
First, the ashes go on our heads in the sign of a Cross. Only through giving himself on the Cross did Jesus manifest the glory of the Resurrection: so, the Cross is a sign that it is only through the gift of ourselves to others that we find our true selves and life’s true meaning.
And second, the ashes themselves are a sign: that even though we are made of dust, literally as carbon-based lifeforms, even though we return to dust when we are dead and buried, even so – through losing ourselves, turning away from the self-obsession which we in the trade call ‘sin,’ through living our lives for others instead of ourselves, we discover life in all its fullness, and even life eternal.
So we wear these ashes today not a signal of our virtue but of Jesus’, and of our willingness to walk in his way of self-giving love.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.