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'Remember that you are dust...

Fr Dennis Smith,  Ash Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

The school of St Andrew’s, Turi, is spectacularly situated in the highlands of Kenya’s Rift Valley. From its foundation in 1931, to provide education for the children of local farmers, the school was run by Mr and Mrs Lavers, affectionately known as Ma and Pa Lavers.

For years the school provided education for British missionary children, and from its original number of 15 on the school roll, there are now well over 100, and while still Christian in its ethos, the school is both international and multi-cultural.

On the 29th February 1944 a fire destroyed St Andrew’s. The Lavers immediately set about rebuilding the school and at the time the Colonial British government gave permission for Italian prisoners of war to help construct the new school, as the estimated cost of rebuilding was very high.

The new school building, erected in stone instead of wood, has as its symbol a phoenix, a mythical bird calling to mind both a brutal event and a blessed hope, both the fire that burned the school down and the faith that ashes are not the end.

After the fire Pa Lavers instituted an annual “Phoenix Night”. On Phoenix Night each year a great bonfire was lit in the shool grounds. There was a godly custom on Phoenix Night that every child was invited to write on a piece of paper anything and everything in the past year that made them sad or sorry or ashamed. Then they gathered round the fire and, as a sign of their intention by God’s grace to make a fresh start, they crumpled up their pieces of papers and threw them into the flames.

I don’t know whether Phoenix Night at St Andrew’s School every coincided with Ash Wednesday, but what was affirmed that night resonates with what Ash Wednesday should mean for us. On Ash Wednesday, we enter what T. S. Eliot described as “the time of tension between dying and birth”. Our purpose at this time is to rid ourselves of illusions. We pray with Eliot: “suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood.”

On Ash Wednesday we hear words that the world around us conspires to drown out. As I receive on my forehead the sign of the Cross imposed in ashes, Revd Denise says to me “Remember that you are dust and that to dust you shall return” The words are said to me personally. This isn’t something that only happens to other people. I, Dennis Smith, am the one who is dust and I am the one who shall return to the dust.

The Victorians were better at facing the fact of death than we are. I don’t have a skeleton by me as I say my prayers, as many a Buddhist monk does, but many Victorians would have close to hand a copy of a children’s book that sold in its hundreds of thousands in the 19th Century: Mrs Sherwood’s “The History of the Fairchild Family”. Old Rogers, the Fairchilds’ gardener dies and the children are taken to see his body.

“You never saw a corpse, I think?” says Lucy’s father. “No, Papa, “ answers Lucy, “but we have a great curiosity to see one.”

I wonder if we dislike the tale because we disapprove of what we see as a morbid preoccupation with death – or because we continue to mock ourselves and our children with falsehoods, the most mischievous of which being that you must keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved?

Today, Ash Wednesday, I confront the reality that I am a sinner under the sentence of death. But sin isn’t merely what individuals commit. Nor is death what happens to sentient beings. There is social and corporate sin, the wrongs in which we are complicit by our membership of larger groups. Such groups – the crowd at a football match, the lads out together on a stag night, the nation that declares an unjust war – can behave in ways in which the men and women who form them would never do.

We need to find ways of corporate repentance, ways more costly than the token apology from someone in high office. “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return”. The words said to us individually apply to our institutions to. Nobody lasts, but nothing does either. Institutions often find it hard to recognise that the time has come to let go. For example, we feel sad when a church closes, but if that church has had a useful life and has done some good, then our sadness is misplaced.

It looks as if the institutional church is in terminal decline, but if it isn’t, that’s not because it is immortal. Again we make Eliot’s prayer are own: “Teach us to care and not to care”. Nothing lasts, save the love to which, as rivers to the sea all we are and all we do returns.

Today, Ash Wednesday, we face reality. We face our own sinfulness and mortality and that of the fleeting show of things, our religious structures included. And – very deliberately – we turn. We repent. We draw near to God and – like boys and girls throwing balls crunched-up paper into a bonfire – we ask that all that is ill in us may be consumed in the inextinguishable fire of his love.

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