Ash Wednesday 2018

Download a pdf of this sermon suitable for printing.

Ash Wednesday 2018—14 February 2018
Revd Martin Johnson

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6 (7-15) 16-21

Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing writes St Paul, as we heard this evening; seemingly competing ideas that we are asked to hold together. The Vicar and Moped, the Motor Scooter and the dog collar! They sound like the names of whimsical novels from Chesterton or Dorothy L Sayers because they too seem like competing ideas. Riding my scooter around the parish and beyond evokes some interesting responses, the most common being surprise that a member of the clergy would use such a form of transport. I explain that it is convenient, cheap and I leave a small carbon footprint. Surprisingly even that last attribute fails to impress the folk of the inner north of Canberra!! Most folk are surprised because they see it as a very risky thing to do and are even more surprised when I suggest that perhaps that is half the fun! Those of you who have visited Canterbury will know that not much of the old medieval city remains. Much of it was destroyed on one particular night – 1st June 1942 in an event known as the Baedeker Raid. The Cathedral itself escaped unscathed with the loss of just the library in the precincts. Much of the city had been evacuated including the boys of the choir school and the Precentor Joseph Poole who had remained in the city to continue the daily round of prayer and worship was left with six small boys and five adult lay clerks in the choir. He wrote afterwards: ‘being on the brink of eternity made it so much more fun to be here!’ Commenting on that one writer claimed: ‘That was one aspect of the truth. The other aspect being an experience of recurring dread, which was not fun and was a reminder not of eternity but merely of death.’ Perhaps riding my scooter around Canberra has some similarities!

Lent is described as ‘That joyful season’ that, coupled with the words we will hear this evening: remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return give us some context. Can we say that Ash Wednesday has a similar sense of joy and dread? How do you respond to those words? With a sense of excitement at being on the edge of eternity or of dread? Lent is a time, a space given to us in which we hold these two things in balance and enter into what they might mean. I think it is an exercise best approached by meditating on that phrase ‘Dying to self.’ When we think of this we can all too often get rather grim about it all. But we need to wary of being preoccupied with thinking of mortification and the like. Quite clearly Jesus does not call us to this, completely the opposite in fact; consider the words we heard this evening in the gospel: ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting…... But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face.

Try as we might we cling to certainties and we believe one of those certainties is that which see in the mirror. The Dominican, the late Herbert McCabe however, suggests that to live is not to be the person in the mirror, but the person who is looking in the mirror! Subtle yes but I think we can just grasp what he means. The mirror is a mere reflection, it is not something we should or can hold on to! McCabe suggests that our first response in Lent in looking upon ourselves is not to be ashamed, but to be amused. Amused at our self-importance or self-assertion! Any sorrow we feel at our faults and failings are not the opposite of joy but in fact part of being joyful. If we have set ourselves a Lenten goal to die a little to self then there is joy because we have begun a process whereby we are released from this need to grasp at unreality, at a mere reflection what a relief!

In all this we cannot escape those words that will hear tonight: remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return. In 2001 Rowan Williams was in New York when the twin towers were destroyed; he went on to write a meditation on the event called Writing in the Dust. In typical Rowan fashion he suggested that the events of September 2001 were an opportunity. Speaking of the intense fear of the day he wrote: And in the face of extreme dread, we may become conscious, as people often do, of two very fundamental choices. We can cling harder and harder to the rock of our threatened identity – a choice, finally, for self-delusion over truth; or we can accept that we shall have no ultimate choice but to let go, and in that letting go, give room to what’s there around us – to the sheer impression of the moment, to the need of the person next to you, to the fear that needs to be looked at, acknowledged / and calmed (not denied). If that happens, the heart has room for many strangers, near and far.

The prophet Joel describes such an event: a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! But in true prophetic fashion we hear those words: Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. ‘Yet even now.’ It is redolent of that word at the heart of our Biblical tradition and is the dynamic behind it…nevertheless!

It is, now nearly two decades on from 9/11, widely recognized that that opportunity was missed. In our dread we failed to enter into the dread of vast swathes of humanity and we continue today to have to deal with the ramifications of that. This is the other aspect of dying to self. In our Lenten observances we enter just a little into the world of the many in our world who suffer, suffer daily fear and dread.

The joy and dread of living on the edge of eternity – what a season this is. Let us enter into the dread of so many and in doing so commit ourselves anew to ending the fear that is the daily reality of so many. But nevertheless let us be joyful then that in doing so we are relieved of the need to hang on to the unreality of the reflection in the mirror. This is risky, but this is our Lenten calling. Amen.