Fr David's Sermon for Ash Wednesday
There’s always a certain irony in proclaiming a Gospel reading that teaches us to hide our fast and not display it on our faces, and then, a few moments later, marking the cross on the congregations’ foreheads as a sign of their penance. It stirs the debate as to whether we should keep the cross in place as we go out into the street or whether we ought to remove it before we leave church.
This year, of course, it’s a moot point. You are not able to be with me in church to receive the sign of the cross on your foreheads and so there will be no parading your piety before the watching world.
I am very grateful that Jan is able to be with me today to assist with this service and that, as a member of my household, he can both receive the sign of the cross in ash, and can do the same for me. Our ashing of one another is representative of the desire of all of you to receive that mark if you could, but most of you watching will hopefully also have received from me a card containing the sign of the cross in ash: each made individually and coming to you with my prayers for a holy and fruitful Lent.
For I think that is the key to putting together the act of receiving the ash with the directions and emphases of our readings. Ash Wednesday is a Holy and important day. It is one of only two non-feast days, with Good Friday as the other, that the church designates days of Holy obligation: that is days that all Christians are obliged to mark, generally by coming to church when that is possible.
But Ash Wednesday is not complete in itself, it is the invitation into something and the start of a longer period of time over which we should aim to build on what happens today, and during which we need to pace ourselves, so that we do not expect too much, and burn out too quickly: think embers glowing for a long period, not the quick bang of a small firework.
Lent lasts for 40 days, and that’s without the Sundays. It is a period in which we are invited to be particularly aware of God in our lives, a period to mark by prayer and fasting – to set aside time to come consciously into God’s presence and perhaps to deny ourselves something as a mark of our desire to take Lent seriously and as a reminder to us. It isn’t about giving up cake and alcohol so that we can lose some of the extra weight we’ve gained in lockdown (though that may be a nice side effect) but about being reminded, each time we reach for the biscuits or the gin, that this is a special period in which we are trying to put our focus elsewhere.
Both Ash Wednesday and any fast we may choose, should act as a springboard into something more. Isaiah reminds us that, of themselves, humility for one day, sack cloth and ashes, are meaningless, they only find meaning if they lead us to something more.
What God desires of us is to seek justice and freedom for those to whom it is denied, to show generosity and kindness, not just to our friends and those who will pay us back, but to those who cannot hope to pay us back, those with nothing to give.
We’re very good at the “pointing of the finger” as Isaiah says, trumpeting the mistakes and failings of others, be they our fellow Christians or those different from us, with perceived power and influence.
God asks us instead to turn the gaze on ourselves and to ask what we are doing about those things about which we get so indignant. Have we addressed our own mistakes and failings? And where others are oppressed, are we willing to see our part in their oppression, or seek our part in their journey to freedom from it?
Ash Wednesday done well should not leave us despairing about our failure and guilt, but deeply aware both of God’s graciousness and our need of it. Yes, that should humble us, but it should also encourage us: to let go of the pride, wealth and power we are taught to value, and to seek instead treasure in heaven, the values of God’s kingdom: love, service, justice, peace, forgiveness, generosity. We turn our thoughts inward to examine ourselves not to stay there in eternal introspection, but in order to find the humility and grace to turn back to the world with love not envy.
Lent is, of course, a journey towards the cross, the ultimate example of humiliation and self-giving. How we view Lent will be very much determined by how we see the cross. If we see the cross as God’s ultimate punishment, then Lent will be for us a time of fearing God’s judgement, and we’ll either end up broken or not really engaging.
If we learn to see the cross not in those terms, but in terms of God in Jesus opening his arms in the perfect example of love and self-offering – suffering not imposed but willingly experienced for the sake of others, then perhaps we can see Lent as a time to learn to grow in that love. When Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow, it’s not because he wants to inflict pain upon us, but because the ultimate outcome of our recognition of our weakness and our need for God’s love is to have compassion on others, to be willing to suffer when the needs of others requires it.
God’s judgement is about us honestly owning our whole selves, flaws and all, about giving up our defences and opening our arms to the world. If we let it, it can bring us to tears, but if they are always and only the tears of self-pity, the tears of bitterness and woe then we’ve misunderstood and we’re not letting God in deep enough. Let it be our prayer this Lent that God will lead us to tears of compassion, that we might see the world through God’s eyes, and then go and actively love it.