Ash Wednesday Sermon, 2010

Ash Wednesday Sermon, 2010
preached at
St Dunstan-in-the-West

Ash Wednesday is a day rich in symbolism. We embark upon the Lenten Fast like Job and the people of Nineveh as if in sackcloth and ashes aware of, or as the Prayer Book puts it with a particular eloquence, bemoaning and bewailing, our sinfulness. We remember that are we are but dust, and we hear each of us, that initial call, Jesus’ very first words in the Gospel of Mark – Repent – turn away from sin and be faithful.

The imagery in the reading from the prophet Joel reminds us of ancient corporate lament, with the priest between people and altar, is re-lived.

Before we get carried away with the symbolism, we must be very clear what is at the heart of the promise of forgiveness, and this season of Lent: the problem with our sinfulness, all too often is how aware we are of it. It is very easy to be so acquainted with it that drear, solemnity and sobriety take over, and ashes become an end in themselves, a liturgical badge, a sop to our consciences.

We instead are journeying towards Easter: this season is that great feast’s proper preparation. Easter is not the commemoration of an event, it is the celebration of Christ’s resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us. Our baptism unites us with this spiritual reality and conforms our lives with Christ’s. The more we reflect on it, the more we know that death, and the old order are seen for what they are, part of a world which is being done away. Death is there, it claims us, but as my unsurpassed predecessor says:

For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

The Easter Liturgy proclaims this with equal abandon and sustained vehemence:

“Most blessed of all nights, chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead! Of this night Scripture says ‘This night will be as clear as day, it will become my light and my joy.’ The power of this holy night dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy.!”

Too often we lose and betray the new life we received as a gift, and we live as though Our Lord had not risen from the dead. We forget, we forget what the promise and knowledge of New Life has done in us, and our lives become “old” again, petty, dark and ultimately meaningless, in danger of being on a meaningless journey to a meaningless end. We cease to refer our life to that new life which Christ revealed and gave to us. Indeed we live as if He never came. For many great Christian writers, this is the great sin, the only real sin, “the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity”, as Alexander Schmemann puts it.

What we are drawn back to then, as we recover the significance of our baptism and join with those preparing for incorporation into the life of the Church at Easter, is a door which opens onto the splendour Christ’s Kingdom, the foretaste of eternal joy, which is in our midst constantly if we can but see it. Alexander Schmemann again: “The entire worship of the Church is organised around Easter, and therefore the liturgical year is a pilgrimage towards Easter, the end, which is at the same time the beginning: the end of all that which is ‘old’; the beginning of the new life, a constant passage from “this world” into the Kingdom already revealed in Christ….. The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon.”

17 February 2010

William Gulliford