Asking for Lent

Published by Giles Goddard on Wed, 10 Feb 2016 15:14
Vicar's Blog

I sent an email to the congregation yesterday, about Lent. My spellcheck decided it knew better than me what we were planning – so it replaced ‘We will be ashing people in the street from 12.30 to 14.00’ with ‘we will be asking people in the street.’

It's an irritating thing, the spellcheck. But also, in this case, helpful. Today we did ash people in the street, outside the front gate, at lunchtime. It was very moving. Quite a lot of people stopped, young and old, Christian, Muslim and agnostic. They received ash on their foreheads, and then moved on. Sometimes, they remained for a conversation, which usually involved asking me 'what are you giving up for Lent?' In fact I think I’ve been asked that question about fifty times today.

So ‘asking in the street’ felt quite an appropriate substitution.

I gave the answers I usually give on Ash Wednesday: giving up unnecessary drinking (which gets a quizzical response), giving up meat, trying to pray more. These are answers I’ve been giving for Lent for the past few years, and sometimes they feel a little routine.

I wonder whether I’m being imaginative enough as I approach Lent. A well known monk and priest in the United States, Richard Rohr, sends an email every morning. Today, it was entitled 'Incarnation and Redemption’ for Ash Wednesday. He reminded us that Christianity is a religion of the body as well as the spirit - contrary to the common misconception, arising from a simplistic interpretation of Paul’s letters, that Christianity is really about the spirit (Greek word pneuma) as opposed to the flesh (Greek word sarx).

He says: The Nicene Creed and the Apostles' Creed, which many Christians recite at church, go back to the second and third centuries. In them we say, "We believe in the resurrection of the body." I want to point out what that is not saying: We believe in the resurrection of the spirit or the soul--yet that is exactly what most Christians have almost exclusively concentrated on. The Christian religion makes the most daring affirmation: God is redeeming matter and spirit, or the whole of creation.

I am grateful for this reminder, because it’s going to help me celebrate Lent. I’m going to try to focus on the everyday delights and wonders and kindnesses which we encounter. The ordinary miracles which sometimes we take for granted. Bread. Water. Saying hello to those I meet in the morning. Eating an apple. Hearing a lovely piece of music. I intend, this year to give thanks for the love we encounter in everyday life.

There’s a poem I came across recently which encapsulates this, very well:

Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

So what, in this context, is the ash of Ash Wednesday all about? I think there are three ways in which it’s a helpful symbol.

First, the ash connects us very directly to the Resurrection. It’s made of the palm crosses we distributed last year, so the ash from this year is the result of our celebration of Holy Week last. In death is life.

Second, it reminds us of our own mortality; remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. It’s a call to action, really – it’s encouraging us to live each day as if it were our last. For me, that’s what repentance is about; it’s about choosing life instead ofdeath, trust instead of fear, love instead of hate. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ means, for me, turn away from that which has you trapped and be faithful to that which sets you free.

Third, it is a physical symbol. A little smear of grimy ash symbolising the fact that each one of us is loved, completely, so much that our sins and our failings are wiped out, and we are all given a second chance. The material symbolises the spiritual; the physical expresses the divine. So everything is redeemed – matter and spirit!

This year, then, I want to walk more carefully on the earth, so that I can celebrate more profoundly the abundance and generosity of God’s call to us:

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return;

Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

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