Sermon given at Sung Eucharist with Imposition of Ashes, Ash Wednesday 2012
22 February 2012 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Does the idea of Lent fill you with foreboding? Does this day, the beginning of the six-week Lenten fast, seem a day of wrath and doom? Or might we be able to see it instead as a day suffused with a gentle but glorious light, a day full of promise and hope, of quiet joy?
I should like to suggest what might make the difference for us between foreboding and hope, between gloom and joy? But first, we must establish a base of common understanding. This should not be difficult. Her Majesty The Queen in her Christmas broadcast a couple of months ago put the idea succinctly. So I quote her words.
'Although we are capable of great acts of kindness,' The Queen said, 'history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general (important though they are) – but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.'
Her Majesty went on, 'Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships, and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.'
As so often in her Christmas broadcasts, The Queen spoke simply from the heart of her own deep Christian faith. We are indeed capable of great acts of kindness: we are made in the image of the God of love. But somehow that image is easily obscured within us and overlaid by the greed and recklessness to which The Queen referred: what we might call a fundamental selfishness, where self-interest too readily prevails over the interests of other people, even those we love. It may be that we could think of this selfishness as the survival instinct, what has enabled us to prevail in the evolutionary battle. The Church though recognises this as sin, the original sin, the root cause, the origin of all sin, the putting of ourselves and our own needs first. This deeply rooted basic instinct, this original sin, is hard to uproot, is not easily eradicated.
Lent is the time of the Church’s year, when we think most about our sin, our selfishness. I suggest that Lent could be a time of gloom if we were to think of the six weeks of Lent as a time when we need to work hard to eradicate our sin and to earn God’s forgiveness. For quite simply it is beyond our own strength to do so. No amount of fasting, no amount of work for others, no amount of financial generosity can earn us God’s forgiveness, can eradicate our root sin, our selfishness.
In a few minutes, during the liturgy of penitence, while you are invited to come forward for the imposition of ashes, to have the mark of ash on your forehead as a sign of repentance, the choir will be singing the fifty-first psalm, the Miserere, in the setting attributed to the seventeenth-century Italian composer Gregorio Allegri, originally intended for performance exclusively by the Sistine Chapel choir during the night service of Tenebrae during Holy Week. The Abbey Choir will sing the psalm in Latin and you are able to follow the words in Latin and in an English translation. I draw your attention to words about half way through the psalm: Cor mundum crea in me, Deus, et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis. The unfamiliar but broadly accurate translation in our order of service is: Create a clean heart within me, God, and renew an upright spirit within my limbs. The viscera are usually thought of less as limbs than as organs, inward parts. So we might as well say, with Coverdale’s translation in the Book of Common Prayer: Make me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
God alone can forgive sins. God alone can make in us a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us. And God will and does. If we can come to understand that and turn to God with true repentance asking his forgiveness, then Lent this year will not be a time of gloom and doom, but a time suffused with a gentle but glorious light, full of promise and hope, of quiet joy.
Our gospel reading today offers us encouragement. It is a somewhat mysterious story. Biblical commentators think it slightly alien to St John’s Gospel. They imagine that the early compilers of the New Testament had some hesitation about it. Perhaps they were unhappy that it seemed to suggest that our Lord might condone the sin of the adulterous woman. Jesus doesn’t condemn but nor does he condone. ‘Neither do I condemn you’, he says. ‘Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’ Do not sin again. He can forgive because he himself bears the pain, carries the cost of the sin. St Peter in his first epistle put it this way, ‘[Jesus] himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.’ [1 St Peter 2: 24]
So echoing in our minds we hear our Lord’s words, Go your way. But we must also hear the words, Do not sin again. That is why Lent can be a time of gentle joy, but cannot be a time of unrestrained joy. We should see it as a time of training. Originally it was a time of preparation of candidates for their baptism and confirmation. So it still is for some. Thus the Church has come to think of Lent as a time of preparation for Easter. During the week after Easter we shall hear one of the most sublime of all the stories in the Gospels, the story of the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus unaware of the resurrection and full of gloom at the death of their Master. He joins them, although they fail to recognise him. Jesus says to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ [St Luke 24: 25-26]
No glory without suffering. No Easter without Lent. No celebration without the preparatory fast. But our fast is no time of desperate scrambling endeavour. Yes, we take seriously the need to open our hearts and lives to God that he might beat down in us our weak and wilful selfish spirit: to make me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me. So we must be scrupulous in exercising restraint and self-discipline, remembering the words of St Paul, ‘Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.’ [1 Corinthians 9: 24-27]
But let us do all this with a joyful spirit. Let there be time and space for God. Let go and let God.