Sermon preached on Ash Wednesday (1 March 2017) by the Revd Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor
The Chancellor recalls a visit to Auschwitz and how it reminds us that the Ash of Ash Wednesday is a reminder to us of both our mortality and our dependence upon God, the only true hope in the ruins and also a reminder of spiritual life which is concerned with how to live a full life, not an empty one.
Towards the end of 1999 I decided I wanted to go on a strange journey to mark the end of the millennium and so I took myself off, alone, to Warsaw, Poland, and then to Krakow, and from there on a rattling old bus with only three other passengers to Auschwitz. Poland was deep in snow and on the night before I travelled to Auschwitz I had been attacked in Krakow by two muggers so I was a bit sore and shaken up, and if I’m honest, a bit sorry for myself.
If you’ve been to see the recent film ‘Denial’ you will remember that at the end of the 90’s the historian David Irving was denying much of what we knew of that death camp. It seemed important to try and learn more, to go on a sort of distressing pilgrimage and so I found myself on that freezing old bus.
I remember so many things about my visit. There were only four of us there and it was snowing heavily. We did not speak to one another. It seemed inappropriate. I remember the suitcases of those who had arrived at the camp all piled high, once packed with fear and confusion but taken away on arrival. I remember the artificial limbs, human hair and toys all stacked up to the ceiling. But what I remember most is the underground chamber where men, women and children were taken to their death, and then, moving next door, the crematoria. That room was the room of ash. The ash summarized so much – not only our fragility, our mortality, our transience, but also, the cruelty, the power and murder that we are capable of in the name of our ideologies, politics, beliefs. In those ovens nearly a million Jews, as well as communists, the disabled, various resisters, clergy, gay people, Poles, Soviets, Roma and many others had their lives ended and turned to ash. As the four of us stood there, a touring group of Jewish children came into the chamber and sang the haunting lament for the dead.
Why do I think about these things today? Well, the obvious prompt was that ash, like the ash that will be placed on us in a moment. It is a reminder to us of our mortality and our dependence upon God, the only true hope in the ruins. But it is also a reminder of spiritual life. I guess that most of us feel that our life is not spiritual enough because of its complexities and imperfections. Spirituality, we have come to believe, is the province of those who manage to escape from the pressures of life. The truly spiritual person, tradition teaches us, though, knows that spirituality is concerned with how to live a full life, not an empty one. The fact is, all we have in life is life. That is why when it is taken away it is a terrible act. Things—the cars, the houses, the educations, the jobs, the money—come and go. They turn to dust between our fingers eventually, they change and disappear. No, things do not make life. The gift of life, the secret of it, is that life must be developed from the inside out, from what we bring to it from within ourselves, not from what we collect or consume as we go through it, not even from what we experience in the course of it.
Time presses upon us and tells us we’re too busy to be contemplative, reflective, but our souls know better.Souls die from lack of reflection. Unawareness is a root of all evil. Responsibilities dog us and tell us we’re too involved with the "real" world to be concerned about the spiritual questions. But it is always spiritual questions that make the difference in the way we go about our public responsibilities. Marriage and partnership, business, children, professions have all been defined in ways that make contemplation impossible, but no one needs contemplation more than the harried mother, the irritable father, the ambitious executive, the striving professional, the worried, the sick. We need reflection, understanding, meaning, peace of soul more than ever.
Life is not an exercise to be endured. It is a mystery to be unfolded. Life comes from the living of it, from the attitudes we bring to it and the understandings we take away from each of the moments that touch our own. The truth is that life is the only commodity each of us actually owns. It is the only thing in the universe over which we have any real control whatsoever, slim as that may be.
It is a busy world, a very busy world. It is the kind of world that consumes us, drains our souls, dries out our hearts, dampens our spirits, and makes living more a series of duties than a kind of joyful mystery. We find ourselves spending life too tired to garden, too distracted to read, too busy to talk, too plagued by people and deadlines to organize our lives, to reflect on our futures, to appreciate our present. We simply go on, day after day after day. Where is what it means to be human in all of that? Where is God in all of that? How shall we ever get the most out of life if life itself is our greatest obstacle to it? In the Gospel Jesus gives us a starting point: Jesus detaches himself from the confrontation of the righteous mob and the woman. He doesn´t bristle and enter into argument. He stoops. He doodles with his finger in the dust. The message here is not that we should opt out of confrontations which may sometimes be necessary but that if we want to see clearly and engage profoundly there are times when we must stoop and refrain. You disengage to clarify and to connect at better depth.
What does this mean for us? Awareness is diminished by over-stimulation. Like pancakes, our lives, like yesterday’s pancakes, can be fat but flat. Our Lent fasting should not be some token abstinence from chocolates but a conscious effort to reduce the mentality called busy, to pull outside of crowd mentalities, to beware of quick judgements and, with Christ in the dust, to stoop to clarify and to connect.
Lent is a snowfall in the snow. The air changes. Everything slows down, is heard differently, is seen through a fresh light on the ground. It is a time for you, for a more purposeful reflection, a time that is poised with so much for you, those in your life, even the world. Don’t let it pass unnoticed.