St Francis, Terriers - Ash Wednesday (01.03.2017)

Tony Dickinson

This morning I spent some time watching the smoke from last year’s palm crosses pour up the chimney. So, it was ironic that the first of the poems to be featured at the Prayer Book Communion on Wednesdays this Lent was Malcolm Guite’s sonnet “Ash Wednesday”, which begins with a lament for the damage that human beings are doing to the earth’s great forests. Land is being cleared at an alarming rate by felling and fire, either for cattle-ranching or for the planting of cash crops. Such projects, we know, very quickly suffer from the law of diminishing returns and are abandoned leaving desert, or at best scrub, where once there was forest teeming with life. It is, perhaps, a powerful parable of human sinfulness, those destructive tendencies whose dark clouds so overshadowed the opening of tonight’s first reading: “The day of the Lord is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”

Most commentators seem to think that the prophet’s fear was focused on the imminent arrival of a devastating swarm of locusts, but again, that appears to be a parable of God’s impending judgement on his people. That is why the prophet calls God’s people to prayer and penitence – all God’s people, from the very oldest to the very youngest, including those whose situation would normally exempt them from their community’s demands.

So why does the beginning of Lent feel almost like a holiday? It can’t be the weather. The forecasters tell us that there is a procession of “lows” lining up across the Atlantic to bring more rain, more high winds, and the occasional hailstorm. It can’t be the news media, which remain burdened with angst, misery and violence. Maybe it’s the opportunity which this season offers to “return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love”. Lent should not be a relentless focus on human sin, but rather a celebration – the celebration – of divine mercy, gathering us all in its embrace. That is not to deny the reality and the seriousness of sin. It is, however, to affirm that sin, destruction, “darkness and gloom”, do not have the final say.

That point is made powerfully by St Paul as he writes to the Christians in Corinth. Despite all his sufferings, despite the failure of the community to grasp what he is teaching them, he can proclaim that “now is the acceptable time; see now is the day of salvation!” In that long string of paradoxes which ended our second reading, Paul affirms the goodness, the generosity, the power of God revealed in human vulnerability and weakness. “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

But still we want to cling on. Despite what St Paul writes, despite the example of our blessed father St Francis, we still want to cling on to the habits, the compulsions, the easy assumptions that actually make us miserable. We assume that if we give up our complicity with the life-style approved by the surrounding culture disaster will overtake us. The message of the prophet, the message of Paul, of Francis, the message of the most perceptive and wise of our own contemporaries is quite the opposite. It is if we don’t let go, if we don’t stop trying to control every aspect of our lives, that we will hit disaster. Being reconciled with God is about much, much more than receiving the imposition of ashes, or saying our prayers more regularly, or giving up sweets, or alcohol, or tobacco and feeling grumpy as a result. That isn’t reconciliation. That is seeking to disguise our true selves from God and from others.

Jesus, as we heard in our Gospel, has no time for such “sleek tricks of self-presentation.” The people he criticises are all “practising their piety” in order to impress the people around them, or in order to feel good about themselves. They are not doing it in order to draw closer to God. And so, as Jesus says, “they have received their reward.” They get that buzz that comes from being recognised as someone “special” or a bit different, a superior being. They remain trapped in their false self, their ego, rather than opening up to God. “We wear a mask,” George Orwell wrote in one of his essays, “we wear a mask and our face grows to fit it.”

Lent is about removing that mask, confronting face-to-face both the things to which we cling for protection and the things which make us afraid. It’s about facing our failures, our inadequacies, our mortality. It’s about being honest with God and with ourselves, recognising that we are not the people God made us to be. The eighteenth-century Rabbi, Zusya of Hanipol, told his followers that there was one question he feared when he had to give account of his life. “In the coming world,” he said “they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

Lent, with its disciplines of prayer, study, fasting and almsgiving, offers us the opportunity to discover who we are in God’s love. Even ashing – perhaps especially ashing – offers us a way into this deeper wisdom. Because ash is not just what is left over after something is destroyed. Wood-ash is a powerful fertiliser. How many of you spread some round your rose-bushes? We leave it on the earth and new things bloom. By the mercy and grace of God, may the ashes which we receive in a few minutes’ time enable new life and new growth in us, as we respond in faith to the reminder to “turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.” To Him, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit …