St Francis, Terriers - Ash Wednesday (10.02.2016)

Tony Dickinson

Is this a Fast, to keep

The larder lean? And clean

From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish

of flesh, yet still To fill

The platter high with fish?

Is it a fast an hour,

or ragg'd to go, Or show

A down-cast look and sour?

No : 'tis a fast to dole

Thy sheaf of wheat, And meat,

Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,

from old debate, And hate:

To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;

To starve thy sin, Not bin;

And that's to keep thy Lent.

That poem “To Keep a True Lent” was written in an age when keeping Lent meant a lot more than giving up chocolate or alcohol, or going without sugar in your morning cuppa. Robert Herrick, who wrote it, clearly knew that passage from the prophecies of Isaiah which we heard a few moments ago. Between Judah in the 6th century BC and Devon in the 17th century AD, there is a shared concern to honour God by doing justice.

Both the prophet and the poet highlight the ways in which religious observance can become a way of avoiding God, an outward show which ignores what is actually happening – in the oppression of employees, in the picking of quarrels, or the pursuit of conflict. No wonder those who do these things complain “we fast, but you do not see.” God, in fact, sees all too clearly. What is required in those who fast is not empty stomachs and empty freezers (to update Robert Herrick’s image), but a commitment to action on behalf of the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless poor, the unclothed, the afflicted. Heaven knows there are among us enough people who fall into every one of those categories, people desperate for deliverance from the bonds of injustice, even in the “prosperous South-East” where so much of the prosperity floats upward, leaving those at the bottom no better off, and quite possibly worse off, than they were before. And “out there”, in makeshift camps or on wintry seas in overcrowded dinghies, there are people who are desperately running away from a government which bombs its own people, or from a civil war whose end can no longer be imagined. They too need “our sheaf of wheat and meat”.

Lent is a time when we examine our conscience, and recognise not just our personal sins of omission and commission but also the corporate sin, the structural sin, in which we share. It is a time for us, too, to break free, to undo the thongs of our own yoke, as St Francis did when he turned his back on his father’s economic power and social status and took his place alongside the outcast, the despised, the chronically ill and disfigured, people who like the woman in tonight’s gospel had, for whatever reason, fallen foul of the law and of those who uphold the law. That may lead us into difficult and dangerous situations, as it did St Paul, as it does Christians in many parts of the world today. It certainly takes us in the opposite to the prevailing wisdom, as expressed in the mass media, where desperate refugees are “a bunch of migrants” and exploited seasonal labourers, paid illegally low wages in conditions of near-slavery, are “a threat to British jobs”. The great themes of Lent, repentance and renewal, are not about polishing up our halo, or wallowing in our misery, but about changing, or being changed, in the way we look at the world.

On the rare occasions when I get to look at the life-style sections of the week-end papers, I am struck by how much is being written about the need to de-clutter. Partly that’s about space, but partly it’s about the need to pare back our habits of acquisitiveness, to “circumcise thy life” in Robert Herrick’s striking, if wince-making image. Surrounding ourselves with “stuff” has been, if anything, even more effective than religion in anaesthetising us against the desire for meaning and an encounter with Ultimate Reality in the living Christ.

In his column in “The Observer” ten days ago, the economist Will Hutton wrote about the possibility that we have hit “peak stuff” and that the fundamental questions now facing our culture are (as they always have been) questions about meaning and purpose, about value rather than about price, about the gaping void in the human heart. Lent faces us with the same questions. In a sense, our Lent projects and Lent courses down the years have been our attempts to answer them, affirming the value of people who are marginalised by illness, by life-threatening or life-limiting conditions, affirming the unity of all God’s people, affirming the reality that God cares for all his creatures.

In our fund-raising we have been, so to speak, ambassadors for Christ, working with him for the good of others as part of his work for the reconciliation of the world. But that activity is only part of the story, part of the quest. At its heart there remains the longing for God himself, which is why, each Wednesday during Lent there will be a drop-in quiet day, an opportunity for people who are not working full-time to take time out and enter into an encounter with God. For some that is a worrying prospect, as they fear the accusing voices circling round in condemnation. It should not be, for at the centre of that circle is Jesus, who stands alongside us in acceptance and boundless love, and who does not condemn, but sends us on our way in peace.

To him, with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…