Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Ash Wednesday 2011
9 March 2011 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
In a few minutes, you will be invited to come forward to receive the sign of the cross in ash on your forehead as a sign of repentance. The imposition of ashes, the mark on our forehead of the cross of Jesus using the ashes of last year’s palm crosses, is a powerful symbol for us both of the suffering of Christ and of our personal weakness and sinfulness as human beings. For the people of Israel, the mark of sorrow for sin, of repentance, and an intention to make a new start, was to sit clothed in sackcloth and covered in ashes, the most dejected and pitiable of sights. We do not change our clothes and we are not covered in ashes but the symbols are there. The clergy wear vestments like sackcloth and we have the mark of ash on our foreheads. Together these symbols express our sorrow for our sin and our intention to make a new start.
We might have in our minds as we approach the idea of a new start the image of the prodigal son, who has before the due time claimed his inheritance from his wealthy father and gone away to a far country where he has squandered everything he has on fast and loose living. Finally he is reduced to penury and takes a menial position as a swineherd, feeding the pigs, for a Jew who cannot eat pork, the lowest of the low. He comes to his senses and sees that the least of his father’s servants have better living conditions than he. He will go to his father and express his repentance. Although he does not go in sackcloth and ashes, he fully intends to ask his father’s forgiveness and a menial job on the estate. Instead his father, as soon as he knows he is coming, runs out to meet him and asks his servants to fetch a rich robe and to kill the fatted calf. Arms outstretched he welcomes home his prodigal son—‘for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found.’ [Luke 15: 24]
We may not feel like the prodigal son. We may not have behaved like the prodigal son. But if we are honest with ourselves we know that we incline to be weak in our resolve to do better and terribly generous with our own faults whilst criticising those of others, and that we strive only a little and part of the time to live up to our amazing privilege and calling of being a follower of our Lord Jesus Christ. This holy season of Lent, on which we are embarked, offers us a God-given opportunity to make a fresh start with God. How shall we go about it?
I was asked yesterday evening by someone leaving the Abbey after Evensong what I would give up for Lent. Naturally I turned the question aside and asked her what she would give up. ‘Chocolate’, she said, and that she would find that really difficult. This morning I gave an address to all the pupils and staff of The Grey Coat Hospital, a Church of England girls’ school, attending a service here in the Abbey. This memory played on my mind. Amongst the pupils, most of whom are Christians, are a number of Muslims. I reflected on the differences between the observance of Ramadan, the annual month-long Muslim fast, and the Christian observance of Lent. Muslims who are old enough and who are not frail or unwell abstain from eating and drinking from dawn until sunset. Even the normal cleaning of teeth is impossible lest a drop of water by some chance should find its way down the throat. In the winter perhaps this fast is not too tough; in the long hours of a northern summer, the burden must be very great. Almost every religion recognises the spiritual value of fasting. That is a little more than giving up chocolate, good though that in itself is, especially if we like chocolate very much.
No one doubts that training and discipline are important in life. No one expects to be able to master the intricacies of a foreign language without spending time familiarising oneself with the parts of speech and committing to memory large quantities of vocabulary. In the same way, no one expects to become an international cricketer or an Olympic rower or a concert pianist without putting in long hours of practice and suffering the pain and deprivation that involves. The body and mind both need to be trained and disciplined if anything testing or tough is to be achieved.
This training and discipline for body and mind is just as important for the flourishing of our religious and spiritual life as it is for our success in the academic or sporting life. If the soul is to soar, the body and the mind must be controlled, put in their place. As it is, for many of us most of the time, and for some of us all the time, our predominant concern is the satisfaction of our bodily needs and of our requirement for comfort and as much luxury as life and our circumstances can afford us. It really will not do. The soul, our spirit, is our precious connection with God. It is so easily subdued and beaten down when all our attention is to our body and mind. This precious and glorious moment, the holy fast of Lent, is time for us to allow our soul to sing.
How shall we go about it? Traditionally, Lent is a time of fasting and abstinence. Fasting I understand to mean literally going without food and drink. Abstinence is giving up some luxury, something we particularly enjoy but do not need, either on a particular day or throughout Lent. Many of us would find it impossible to sustain the demands of life and work if we really fasted, absolutely went without food or drink. The tradition of the Church is to encourage us to give up a meal on Ash Wednesday and on every Friday in Lent—simply to go without, for example to have breakfast and lunch but nothing in the evening. A gentler approach would be, instead of eating nothing at all at the time of the meal being foregone, to replace the meal with a single smaller dish. An example of abstinence would be to have fish on a particular day instead of meat, though probably the spirit of abstinence would not be satisfied by giving up stewing steak for lobster. A typical act of abstinence might be to give up alcohol, either one day a week, or throughout Lent. We should all, to the degree we can manage, both fast and abstain this Lent. There are three points worth noting. The tradition of giving to charity the money saved is worthy but not of the essence. The essence is disciplining, training, the body and mind. Equally, the point is not about losing weight and looking better; this is the opposite of an exercise in vanity. The third point is a light relief: every Sunday celebrates the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We neither fast nor abstain on a Sunday or a major church festival. And we can use the extra time we have well, for prayer and Bible-reading, for time with God.
This might all seem a little difficult. We might suffer a little. Good. We should embrace suffering and offer it to our Lord Jesus Christ, in union with his suffering, for the sake of his Body the Church and for the world for which he came to die. As St Paul said, in his letter to the Colossians, ‘ I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.’ [Colossians 1: 24]
All this will allow our soul to soar and sing in harmony with the song of the redeemed in heaven and prepare us one day to join that heavenly host. Lent really is the best time, preparing us not only for Easter but for the eternal Eastertide.