Sermons from St
Fr Dennis Smith
Ash Wednesday, 6th March, 2019
No one speaks to us as we are spoken to tonight during the course of this service. We are addressed with words that create a visceral impact and which may strike fear and panic into our lives. But they are words that are, and must be, spoken to each one of us, personally. They face us with our mortality, which we can spend our whole lives trying to deny. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And then two lines are drawn on our forehead with the weightless blackened ash, so that we can see and show and feel the mortal remains that we ourselves will become. In the light of this, giving up chocolate, alcohol, sugar, biscuits, news papers, or even some of the practices proposed in our Gospel are acceptable, even welcome, responses to Lent. But we know that such Lenten disciplines can serve as a soft option from facing the ultimate issues that confront us. “Humankind cannot bear much reality,” says T. S. Elliot, speaking of “one end, which is always present”, which is usually taken to mean our own deaths. And Eliot’s assessment is all toot evident in the way we privatize, sanitize and medicalise death in our western culture.
We cannot bear too much reality. But Christians, whose sign is the crucified and risen Lord and who live under the cross, should of all people be willing at least to reckon with death, believing that death is the necessary dark face of coming alive. The season of Lent represents the 40 years the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness on the way to the land that God promised they would inhabit. That sojourn through dry, barren, inhospitable land became the training ground for the Israelites, and then for Jesus during his 40 days in his own wilderness experience. Free of external distraction, it’s where the bare issues of existence can be confronted. We might, of course, respond that “we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Yes, but believing as a form of assent to a proposition isn’t the same as living our lives in and out of the hope of life eternal.
Believing in beliefs can assist us to deny the fears, doubts, questions that the fact of death awakens in us. The thought of death can be every bit as real and frightening for religious people, Christians included, as for non-believers. St Paul himself felt the fear of death’s exposure even while he longed to be clothed in his “heavenly dwelling.” We can be crippled, immobilized, by the terrifying inevitability of death, even if we entertain hope for an eternal life. The response isn’t to seek for grief support or counselling or even to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death in a Death Cafe, although such resources may be helpful and necessary for some people.
We’re not primarily about reducing our fears and seeking our own wellbeing, nor about self-help to overcome the fear of death. Instead, Lent is the season when we return to God, conscious of our mortality or nakedness, our regrets, our sin. Lent is the Church’s annual stocktaking season, the time to overhaul our lives in God’s presence, the season for undergoing more strenuous, intensive exercise in prayer, study and worship. It’s our own voluntary wilderness experience. This urgent mood is summoned by the prophet Joel in our Old Testament reading: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near.” Our inclination is to pass by this annual summons, this call to rend our hearts and not our clothing, and to return to the Lord our God. But if we heed the call, we may know the grace and love of God that can begin to release us from our deepest fears. St. Paul is no less urgent and insistent in today’s Epistle: “Now is the acceptable time… Now is the day of salvation!” There’s a sense of urgency he wants us to feel and respond to that is critical for our life and future. He’s urging us “not to accept the grace of God in vain” not to take it for granted, not to treat it lightly, not to use it as a guarantee against a serious engagement with the new life to which God is calling us. And that engagement is one, as Matthew’s Gospel indicates, before the One “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known.”
You are dust and to dust you shall return.” Lent, then, invites us to recognize that we stand naked and exposed before our gracious God; who called us into being, made us in his image and loves us into a relationship with himself. Enjoying God, we begin to experience a renewal of ourselves that gives us hope of a fuller life to come. Making the most of the time we have, will persuade us that “Neither death nor life… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”