Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Ash Wednesday 2016
Start Date 10th Feb 2016 5:00pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

'Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my faults and my sin is ever before me.' Thus the psalmist, words in English that we shall hear later in Latin sung to the simple, sublime music of Gregorio Allegri. Beautiful music sets solemn and penitential words. Beauty and the beast.

Two great themes sit side by side in the Christian understanding of God and humanity. One theme focuses around the celebration of Christmas and teaches us that God is the Creator, the Father of all, the Originator of the Universe, which is created for the purpose of love. Here God's love flourishes and abounds. And at Christmas we see God's creative love focused in the birth of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The little babe is held in the arms of his loving Mother, adored by the shepherds, worshipped by the Magi. 'Stille nacht, heilige nacht. Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh' Silent night, holy night; sleep in heavenly peace.

The second theme focuses around the celebration of Easter, and begins today on Ash Wednesday. Here we face the dark side. All is not as beautiful and peaceful and lovely as the story of Christmas suggests, though that has its dark side too, with Herod's massacre of the innocents and the flight of the holy family to Egypt. During Lent and through into the great fifty days of Easter, we confront all that is difficult in the world: the fact of sin, cruelty, wickedness, destruction and death. At the heart of this season, that runs from today until the feast of Pentecost, is the betrayal, trial, mocking, scourging, crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ at the hands of cruel men, followed by the amazing and wonderful transformation of death into life on the first Easter morning, when the dead body of Jesus Christ is raised by the power of God, with the promise of forgiveness and new life for all who live in him.

Today we face the dark side. We do not need to argue about the dark side or to explain it. We see it. We confront it. Events in Syria and in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, horror upon horror, destruction upon destruction, appal us. Whether it is the civil war in Syria, the dismantling of an ancient civilization, the cradle of the world, and the destruction of homes and livelihoods, or the appalling inhumanity of so-called Islamic State, with beheadings and crucifixions and the wanton imposition of an extreme version of Islam, we see all too clearly the effects of man's inhumanity against man, of the cruelty and wickedness of which human beings are capable. And it seems there is nothing that can be done but to stand by. And standing by we witness the struggles of men and women and children, like us in every way, but stuck in the midst of a cruel wasteland, to find refuge and shelter, tortured on the one hand by the loss of everything and on the other by exploitation disguised as assistance.

The world seems to be out of joint. The richest and most powerful nations in the world seem to be in turmoil as they mark out their future role. The world's powers seem to be powerless.

Shall we just give up—switch off the television, throw away the daily papers, retreat into a gentler world of our own and hope to find there our own silent night, holy night, heavenly peace? That may be an attractive thought, but it is not so easy. Because in our retreat we see ourselves, confront ourselves, more clearly than usual. And what we see is not so good after all. If we are at all honest, at all reflective, at all self-knowing, we see in ourselves all the ills we see in others. It is not just the world that is out of joint. We ourselves too are out of joint. We do not need to go far down the list of seven deadly sins to find much of which to accuse ourselves. Let us take a moment. Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride.

Consider for a moment just one of these deadly sins and why it is deadly; literally, why it kills our spirit and destroys our human integrity and will. Take the sin of envy and see how powerfully destructive it is, and how it is exploited in our world. We see something that someone else has and we think we would like it for ourselves. We cannot have it, so we envy the person who has. Envy is deadly because allowed free rein it kills our sense of who we are and our ability to reach out as ourselves and give ourselves to others.

Confronted by our sin, today we cry with the psalmist, 'Have mercy on me, O God, in your great goodness; according to the abundance of your compassion blot out my offences.' 'Make me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.'

In a few moments, in the privacy of our own hearts, we shall confess our sins, our sins of commission and omission, of what we have done and of what we have failed to do, our sins of thought, word and deed, our various private greeds, our laziness, our anger, our envy and pride and their impact on ourselves and others. And we shall be marked by the sign of the cross in ash, being reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And we shall be bidden to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

We sometimes think of the Christian life as mostly a matter of trying hard to be a little better than other people, a little nicer, a little kinder, a little stricter about our own habits and morals, a little more thankful than other people. But being a Christian is not a matter of striving, trying hard. Rather it is a matter of true conversion of life, being different, facing in the opposite direction from other people, not looking inwards to our own feelings, our own needs, our own concerns, but looking outwards to our Lord Jesus Christ and relying entirely on his leading, his guiding, his grace to be and do what he wishes us to be and do. Total conversion of life. The Greek for repentance, for this conversion of life, means turning to face the other way, following we may say The Way of Christ.

And Paul shows us what this might mean in practice. 'Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.' We must be like Jesus Christ, who did not think equality with God something to hold on to. Rather he emptied himself, he humbled himself. He became like us, so that we might become like him. So, if we are to be like Christ, we too must humble ourselves. We are not to stand on our dignity as human beings, and expect that others will serve our needs, conform to our ends. Rather like our Lord Jesus himself, we are to be the servants of all.

And service involves suffering. We heard St Paul speak of his sufferings in the second lesson. He reminds us that this was not incidental but part of his mission. 'I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am making up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.'

May our Lent this year be a time of fasting and abstinence, of self-discipline, even so of focus not on ourselves but on our Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour, the Saviour of the world. And let us pray, earnestly and unceasingly, for the gift of repentance, for the peace of the world and for all who suffer more than we can imagine. And may this Lent bring us all to a joyful celebration of salvation at Easter.

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