Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Ash Wednesday 2013
13 February 2013 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
‘..as having nothing, and yet possessing everything’ 2 Corinthians 6: 10
The resignation of the Pope took us all by surprise. We quickly learnt that no pope has resigned since 1415, when Gregory XII resigned, in order to end the schism in the western church between the Roman and Avignon papacies. Before that we now know of the resignation of Pope Celestine V in 1294. After a two year vacancy in the office of pope, he served only five months and found he was unable to govern the Church. He became a hermit for two years and then the prisoner of his successor Boniface VIII, who feared he might become a focus of antipapal plots. Not many years later in 1313 he was canonised.
This brief insight into the history of the Church in the 13th and 15th centuries can serve to remind us that the difficulties that seem to beset the Church in our own day are by no means unprecedented. Of course there is widespread speculation in the secular media about the ‘real’ reason for Pope Benedict’s resignation. Does he too find the Church ungovernable? Is there some secret about to come out? I think not.
In his statement to the Cardinals on Monday the Pope himself said, ‘After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.’ We must be satisfied that there we have the answer. He has fulfilled many of his own expectations of his ministry as pope; now is the time to step down as his strength fails. He referred obliquely to the prolonged public suffering and death of his predecessor. ‘I am well aware’ he said ‘that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.’ He implied that prayer and suffering were not enough for a spiritual leader in today’s world ‘subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith’, in which ‘both strength of mind and body are necessary.’
The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI will I believe be remembered above all for his teaching: three books on the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, three simple and direct encyclicals on the heart of the good news, and the catechesis of his weekly general audiences. Here at Westminster Abbey we shall remember him for his visit to the United Kingdom in September 2010 and for the remarkable addresses he gave here, especially in the Palace of Westminster on the compatibility of faith and reason and here in the Abbey during the ecumenical service of Evening Prayer when he spoke warmly of the history of faith in this land. We shall also remember and give thanks for his gracious invitation to the Abbey Choir to sing together with the Sistine Chapel choir in Rome last summer: such a powerful and memorable symbol and such a step on the road of collaboration and friendship between the Churches. We shall pray for him and for the election of his successor.
It is interesting that the term used in the media has been not retirement but resignation. In fact in the Pope’s Latin statement the word used is renunciation: ‘Declaro me ministerio Episcopi Romae, Successoris Sancti Petri … renuntiare.’ ‘I declare that I renounce the ministry of bishop of Rome, successor of St Peter.’ Now we can see how carefully planned and timed was this statement, a few days before the beginning of Lent, with the new pope being in place in time for the Church’s celebration of new birth, of resurrection at Easter. The joke is what the Pope is giving up for Lent, but the serious Lenten question posed for us all by this unexpected step is one about resignation or renunciation. Is resignation a virtue that we should be seeking to cultivate? There is little in the Bible or Christian history about resignation as a virtue, although there are many moments when we see heroes of the faith in Old and New Testament resigned to their suffering and seeing the virtue in their resignation.
But the word renunciation has a real resonance. From the epistle to Titus, ‘The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.’ And in the Book of Common Prayer at a baptism, each of the godparents is asked, ‘Dost thou, in the name of this child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow nor be led by them?’ and answers ‘I renounce them all.’ In the Common Worship liturgy of Baptism the word ‘renounce’ appears. The questions of the godparents are threefold: Do you reject the devil? Do you renounce evil? Do you repent of sin?
So, renunciation: ‘Dost thou renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world with all covetous desires of the same and the carnal desires of the flesh.’ It is well on Ash Wednesday to be reminded of this baptismal commitment of the Christian life: to renounce the devil and all his works and the vain pomp and glory of the world with all covetous desires of the same and the carnal desires of the flesh.
Lent helps to bring us back to the heart of the matter. How shall we use this Lent? How go about this renunciation? The tradition of the Church here is strong and clear. Lent is a time of fasting and abstinence. We are to abstain and we are to fast. There is often airy talk about taking on extra things. It is good to find more time for prayer each day, to return to the daily reading of the Bible that we were taught in our catechesis and have perhaps all too easily dropped. Come back to the Bible. I have been delighted to hear of people wishing to take on the daily reading and study of the Rule of St Benedict as a guide to life within the cloister and without. Come back to St Benedict.
But a time of fasting and abstinence is the key to Lent, to the renunciation of covetous desires and carnal desires. Lent challenges us to approach faithfully and diligently, with determination and commitment, fasting and abstinence. What should that mean in practice? It means more than just giving up some little luxury we enjoy: that will not contribute greatly to a more disciplined life, to more focus on simplicity and clarity, to better attention to the things of God. To abstain is to give up some large, needless luxury we enjoy, such as alcohol, if we enjoy that. But it need not be food and drink. It could be taking taxis, if we tend to rely on them, or watching television, if we waste too much time doing that, the emphasis being on simplicity and clarity. And to fast is clear: to go without food in such a way that we feel hungry, and offering our hunger to the Lord. That must mean giving up a meal, certainly on a Friday, perhaps on a Wednesday too, the other traditional day for Christian fasting. Which meal will depend on our way of life: probably not breakfast or lunch if we want to remain useful all day.
And whatever we do, avoid gloomy looks. Enjoy Lent! This holy and beautiful season allows us to focus better on what really matters: the love of God above all and in all and through all. In renunciation is the true abundance: ‘as having nothing, and yet possessing everything’, as St Paul said. Our journey to the Cross in our Lord Jesus Christ is the way to our glorious Resurrection in Him who died that we might live.