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Sermon preached on Ash Wednesday (5 March 2014) by the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, Bishop of London
The Right Reverend Richard Chartres preaches at the Sung Eucharist with Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday.
It’s Ash Wednesday. I am glad that the clergy of the Diocese of London are showing creativity in communicating the meaning of this day. I received this afternoon a photo of one of our priests offering "ash to go” outside Notting Hill Underground Station. One of the witty canons of St Paul’s has also proposed "ash and carry”.
But I am especially glad to have reached Ash Wednesday after some weeks past in which my mail box and daily delivery has been full of indignation. From the various angles of the debate on human sexuality the vitriol has flowed in, denouncing the errors and shortcomings of others seemingly blind to the lack of charity which rage against the others betrays. There is a word for all of us in today’s gospel – if there is any one among you who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.
Imagine the scene. Jesus is teaching in the Temple where there is much coming and going, babble and chatter – more like Paddington Station than St Paul’s. Suddenly there is even more clamour. A group of moral vigilantes arrives with a wretched woman in tow. Their clamour is full of indignation and moral outrage mixed with a crafty plan worthy of a Today interviewer to trap Jesus into answering a loaded question in order to elicit some comment that can be used against him.
Perhaps the indignation is especially fierce because we always cover up those parts of ourselves that we find shameful and then project them on to other people. If we ever find ourselves disliking someone at sight, at first meeting, then thank God that He has given you an insight about what you dislike about yourself and what you are covering up.
What does Jesus do? He stoops close to the ground and doodles on the earth. He bends towards the humus, disengages and says nothing. The spiritual pilgrimage of Lent begins with closing our mouths.
This is the sad springtime of the Christian year. This is a day for joy as we recognise that a life which is all Carnival with no ensuing Lent simply makes us sick; when we are invited to realise that the harvest of our self-righteousness is self- destruction.
Much of the time we live on the surface in the midst of the strife of tongues. Our ego life, located in that surface self, is subject to a great clamour of competing thoughts and emotions. Fear of the future; remorse for the past; our place in the competition for glittering prizes; lust; anger; greed; all jostle against one another because most of us are not simple people with a longing for peace and a genuine desire to love and be loved.
Ours is as Thomas Merton says a life spent in "a dream of multifarious, confused and agitated existence.” Matthew Arnold said much the same about "This strange disease of modern life, With its sick hurry and divided aims.”
Meanwhile the deserts spread within us in the inner life.
"In headaches and in worry Vaguely life leaks away” [W.H.Auden]
But it is in the inner life where our deepest selves can drink from the inexhaustible well of divine love that we can be refreshed and restored to joy. If that sounds fanciful then it may be that the desert has advanced a long way in us. Cynicism like all sins is addictive.
At the heart of Lent, the sad springtime of our Christian year, is a pilgrimage to the new life of Easter. We deny fuel to the surface existence where the clamorous ego is located. We fast to be free from all those drives and cravings which keep us in prison; shackled to the treadmill of surface existence; and that frustrates our re-connection with the freshness deep down things. We long for the desert to bloom and for our lives to be filled with the love that is God.
I am not of course talking about some emotion which can evaporate as quickly as it can arise. For God, as we see him in Jesus Christ, love is not an emotion; God’s love is self-giving which has the power to transform life.
The symbolic obtuseness of modern culture makes it hard for us to engage with the Bible intelligently and to understand the inner meaning of the desert through which the Israelites journey on pilgrimage. There is a crucial moment in Exodus XVII where the people cry out for water and Moses is instructed "to smite the rock” with his staff and the water flows out of the rock. The rock is the crust that forms over life as we age but beneath the crust in the spiritual heart there is an inexhaustible well spring if we can once break through. The Holy Spirit is present in a fountain of living water in the spiritual heart of each one of us. The depths of the story are uncovered in one of the greatest Christian meditations on growth in the spiritual life, Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses – it is good reading for Lent as long as you take it slowly.
What are the implications for us this Lent?
We must soberly look at our own lives and note how far the desert has spread and the meaninglessness of so much that occupies our time. "Killing time” is one of those phrases in ordinary language which convey deep wisdom.
Ash Wednesday is a particular occasion for this sober examination but it is a continuing theme throughout Lent. We have to be clear about our starting point and all that impedes us in our pilgrimage to new life.
"In the deserts of the heart Let the healing fountains start
In the prison of his days Teach the free man how to praise” [W.H.Auden]
We remove the fuel which keeps us trapped on the surface. At the same time we tackle in a determined way any addictions and unjust and selfish ways of life. God so loved the world, that he was generous and gave himself to us – measured by that standard all of us have a distance to travel into deeper generosity.
We are given energy for the spiritual pilgrimage, the more we live as we seem. Jesus says "go and sin no more”. Don’t beat yourself up in useless remorse; don’t waste your time like the moral vigilantes in judging other people – change your behaviour.
All this means different things for different people. We need to work out what it means for us this Lent individually. Reducing the fuel can mean food or drink; it can mean other stimuli and distractions. Prayer that is not too talkative will reveal where we must make changes. The Church and this Cathedral offers confidential guidance as you make your own rule.
Then our longing for life and love has to be clear and simple and that simplicity is consolidated in silence. Most of us do not have the opportunities of Merton the monk and as the father of four children trying to hold down a job in the city, I am under no illusions about how difficult it is to achieve any regular immersion in silence. But just as we can find time to keep up with the news and even read a daily newspaper, it should be possible to make time for the prayer of longing expressed in silence. Such regular prayer is vital to our growth and refreshment.
The new life of love which is not an emotion but self-giving cannot be communicated as an idea in words; it can only be communicated to us as a gift from the living God as we see him in Jesus Christ. He depends on our receptivity but he is always ready to give more than we can conceive or desire in our present state of spiritual maturity.
Beloved this is a most hopeful time of the year; our sad springtime. I pray that our thirst for new life may be deep and our necessary work to clarify our desires and to make ourselves ready to receive the risen Lord Jesus, when he comes at Easter, may be urgent and persevering. May God bless you in your pilgrimage.