Sermon preached on Ash Wednesday (1 March 2017) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain & Priest Vicar
The Chaplain has yet to see a child dressed as Jesus for World Book Day.
Tomorrow (the 2nd March) is World Book Day, and children across the country will go to school dressed up as a character out of their favourite story. Perhaps a character they admire or one they aspire to be like.
There’s always a new character that pops up each year, but many will go for the old favourites, super heroes, characters out of Harry Potter, the Wizard of Oz etc. One of my godchildren (a rather serious 6 year old) picked up a toy skull on a recent visit to the Tower of London so that he could complete his Hamlet outfit!
As World Book Day falls this year so close to the beginning of Lent, it seems to me to be a perfect focus for Lenten reflection.
Who or what do we aspire to, who do we admire, or perhaps what is it that we admire in others. Who and what are we trying to be and why?
But of course we can’t be someone else, that role is already taken.
However, aspiring to be or to become is an important part of our human journey. We are, in this life at least, a work in progress. Our is to flourish as ourselves as best we can. We will doubtless often feel like we are going in circles or even from time to time backwards but hopefully we have our sights on improving ourselves and our ability to do, or to cope with, or to be more …patient, compassionate, brave, loving, careful, joyful…
But what motivates these aspirations?
Today our readings challenge our notions of right living and religious observance. They warn us against the type of character performance that might on the surface at least look like we have our ducks in a row, but this is just a matter of skin deep appearance. God sees through the external appearance, God goes straight to the heart, for if there is any treasure to be found, it is to be found there.
In the synoptic Gospels, Mathew, Mark and Luke, Jesus begins his time of soul searching in the wilderness immediately after his Baptism and so Baptism for me has always been a place that we set of from, not a place that we arrive at, fully formed and having all the right answers.
At Baptism Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit and in our Baptism we are told that we have been clothed with Christ.
Now funnily enough I am yet to meet a child dressed up as Jesus for World Book Day!
It would be a brave and perhaps a rather unworldly soul who would turn up as Jesus from their favourite book the Bible and yet, why not?
In Baptism we are told that we have put on Christ. Here is a paradox, that in order to be more truly ourselves, we have to pay attention to being more like him.
When was the last time we consciously put on Christ, what would that look like for each one of us and what does each one of us need to work on, to change in order to be more Christlike.
Lent is a time of reappraisal; of ourselves, of our goals and aspirations and of our progress towards them. If we are able to be honest with ourselves then perhaps we can admit how often these goals are associated with obtaining or achieving, rather than becoming.
Over the last few days as I was preparing for the Eucharist earlier this morning with the school there was a question about whether we might use different words at the ashing, words which we will each hear said to us again shortly.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
They are powerful words, if a little humiliating, but knowing our true place is an important part of being able to be free to be fully ourselves. We didn’t change the words because the children are rather captivated by them but if I did consider using an alternative it would be
Remember you that are loved and to love you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
Because it is surely love that brings out the best in us, not fear and it is unfortunate that by tradition we seem to have all too readily chosen language that make us fearful and afraid of God’s judgement more often than words that can reassure us of Gods love for us.
So what do you and I need loved out of us this Lent?
What will we allow the love of Christ to touch and to transform.
Surely Lent is a time above all when we are honest about the fact that we can all be better than we are. It is surely, above all, a time to stop focusing on the speck in the others eye (because it doesn’t matter how big it is, there is nothing you can do about it) and start focusing, seriously, on the plank in our own.
Because there is something that we can do about that.