The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Wednesday, 14th February 2018 at 5:00 PM
In a few minutes, we shall bless ashes and invite every one of you in the congregation this evening to come forward and accept the sign of the cross in ash on your forehead as we say the words, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’
This little sign of ash on your forehead will evoke the repentant sinner in the Old Testament who sat in sackcloth and ashes. You remember the story of the prophet Jonah who went to preach to the people of Nineveh that they must repent of their sins and turn again. We read in the book of the prophet Jonah, ‘When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.’ The ash will be a sign for us of repentance, of sorrow for our sin and of our determination to sin no more, to become in every respect the people God wants us to be.
Very often on Ash Wednesday, while the people come forward to receive the ashes, the Abbey choir sings the well-known and beautiful setting by Allegri of the psalm Miserere mei, Deus, Psalm 51, ‘Have mercy upon me, O God.’ But today, the choir will sing not words from Psalm 51 but words written as a meditation on Psalm 51.
Now, a meditation sounds as though it might be written in a peaceful moment of calm reflection. This meditation, however, was by no means written in such a moment but at a time of agonising uncertainty and sorrow and loss by one of the most remarkable people of the late 15th century.
You can see the name of the author in your order of service, Girolamo Savonarola. And perhaps you know the name but little about the character. In late 15th century Italy, in the city of Florence, the name Savonarola was both vital and divisive. He wrote the words we shall hear sung in a few moments while he waited in prison for his execution. The date by which he had written these words was 8th May 1498.
He had been tortured by the authorities who had imprisoned him and the torture was particularly terrible and effective. Only his right hand had been excluded from the torture, in order that he could sign a document confessing to everything of which he had been accused. He had signed the document, in his agony, in order that the torture might cease, admitting his errors. But now, he recanted of his signing and wrote, in an agony of distress, the words we shall hear, out of the bitterness of his repentance. What fault had he committed? What had Savonarola done to become so unpopular with the authorities?
Savonarola was a friar, a member of the Order of Preachers, the so-called Dominicans. His preaching was powerful and prophetic. He preached against the corruption and vice in public life and called people back to the truths of the Gospel. Anything you read of him has a point of view about him. Some thought him mad or dangerous. He was a puritan 150 years before the English puritans who fought so bitterly and successfully against king Charles I. His hold over the people of Florence was most extraordinary. While it lasted, he persuasively encouraged the people to burn on a ‘bonfire of vanities’ anything that might be contrary to Christian values. He was contemptuous of venality, of corruption, of luxury, of the love of money.
In particular, Savonarola was critical of the Borgia pope Alexander VI. The pope was not only the father of at least four children, whom he legitimised as his own when he became pope, including his notorious daughter Lucrezia, and his son Cesare, whom as a teenager he made a cardinal, but was also intent on political power and the wealth and aggrandisement of his family. In his turn the pope was determined to put a stop to Savonarola’s criticism.
In the end, the pope formed an alliance with the Medici family, whom Savonarola had driven from Florence. Together they managed to defeat their fiercest critic. Savonarola was arrested and tortured before his death on 23rd May 1498. He was hanged on a gibbet between two companions in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence and his body and theirs were then burnt to ashes and the ashes flung into the river Arno.
Savonarola remains a controversial figure, more often criticised as a fanatic than admired as a person of deep devotion to God. But in the words that the choir will sing during the ceremony of the ashing this evening, we see the depth of his personal commitment to Christ. We also see his agony at having failed to remain true to himself even when tortured. In the last two weeks of his life, he hated having signed a confessional document to make the torture stop. He could not really believe that all he had done to reform morals and to focus the people of Florence on Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord had been in error.
It is also fascinating that William Byrd set these words to music towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, in 1591. Many musicians had already used the same text and set it to music. But William Byrd’s circumstances were very particular and linked him powerfully to Savonarola’s sense of despair and alienation. For Byrd was a Catholic, tolerated, possibly even encouraged, by the queen but inevitably distanced from his faith and from the Roman Church. Even if he was safe, and he had often been accused, his fellow Catholics were persecuted for their faith. Perhaps it was the awareness of his precariousness that led him to understand the real meaning of this text and to set it so powerfully.
What will these words mean to us this evening as we sit quietly and listen before or after our own act of repentance in the presence of Christ? Can we be united with the author as he cries, ‘Infelix ego’, ‘O woe is me, bereft of all help, who have sinned against heaven and earth.’ We shall hear him ask God, ‘Shall I despair?’ and his answer, ‘Surely not, for God is merciful. My Saviour is ever-loving. Thus, God is my only refuge: he will not despise the work of his own hands: nor will he reject human beings made after his own image.’ Despite his personal agony and no doubt his fear of death, and perhaps because of the depths of his suffering, he concludes his prayer, ‘To you, O ever-loving God, in sadness and lamentation I come. You alone are my refuge.’ Finally, quoting the words of Psalm 51, he prays, ‘God have pity on me, according to your great mercy.’
Our plight is not Savonarola’s, thank God. But our prayer can be. Perhaps we alone know the reality of our sin, whether it be large or small, a great act of wickedness of which we are dreadfully ashamed or repeated petty acts, in thought, word and deed, putting ourselves, our selfishness, before all true and proper regard, respect and care for others. Whatever our sin, none of us is free but through Christ: through his forgiveness, through his love alone can we have freedom from sin. So, let us trust in God as our only refuge. Let us make our own the words, ‘God have pity on me, according to your great mercy.’ And may we all rejoice in the words of forgiveness, pronounced by the priest on behalf of our loving God, and use this time of Lent in constant, disciplined thankfulness to God our Father.