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The Rector: Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday
26 February 2020

Revd Nicholas Mercer

Today is Ash Wednesday

It is the start of the beginning of Lent which is a penitential season in the Church

In the Bible and in the Medieval Church, covering ones head with ashes was considered a sign of repentance, sorrow and mourning

Quite literally we mark the start of Lent

And we do so with ashes

To show that, we too, are entering a period of repentance, sorrowing and mourning

The forty days of Lent reflect Christ’s sojourn in the wilderness

And we try and recreate the privations and temptations by/artificially/ with giving something up.

I am sure that some of you will have already resolved not to eat chocolate, drink tea or wine etc

Whilst we lived in Cyprus, my wife and I tried to give up meat

This is common practise in the Orthodox Church

However, it just proved to me that I am not cut out for vegetarianism

I got to the point where a bean burger was the highlight of my week – that was it


To give up chocolate – does not remind us of hunger

To give alcohol – does not remind us of thirst

And whilst it is good to be daily reminded of the privations of our Lord

If we are not careful, Lent can become a liturgical parlour games when it should be a time for serious reflection and action

What then should we be focussing on?

First, before we start, we all need to remember that Lent is real

If you have not yet been driven into the wilderness in your life you almost certainly will be

I suspect that most of us however have already experienced that barren place and can recall

  • The sense of desolation and isolation
  • The blackness of the day and the agony of the night
  • The complete inability to think clearly
  • And the total preoccupation with the problem to the exclusion of all else

Metaphorically, it is like a night on a dark mountain

All alone, in a silent land

But, as we also know from such episodes, all is not lost

Disasters and privations are not necessarily the catastrophe we consider them to be

The theologian Professor Father Martin Laird remarked in his book “Into the Silent Land”

“I believe that in this turmoil, grace is working gently, if painfully, in the unconscious… inviting our true selves, to emerge from the womb into fullness of life. Quite often the whole process of crisis is nothing less than a mystical experience of death and resurrection to a new life which is filled with true joy”

He went on

“It is unfortunate that our anxiety… blinds us to the forces of liberation at work”

Whilst I was at theological college, I did some research on why people were being called to ordination in later life  

In the vast majority of cases it was the wilderness experience which had led people to seek ordination

  • Divorce
  • Illness
  • Bereavement
  • Redundancy

Had all allowed a flowering of the Holy Spirit, a death and resurrection, to reshape their life

Secondly, as many of us know,prayer can also flourishes in time of adversity

The Carmelite monk St John of the Cross coined the phrase “the dark night of the soul”

He said of the wilderness experience

“God sets the soul in this dark night to the end that he may quench and purge its sensual desire”

“The soul knows only suffering in this dark and arid purgation of the desire, but this means it becomes healed of its many imperfections”

He went on

“These souls are like the children of Israel, to whom God began to give food from heaven

This food from heaven is given to us through prayer

And such discipline in prayer can be achieved through the rigours of an enclosed life

More often than not, it is often forced upon us when we are in the wilderness

We could resolve to give up chocolate but why not concentrate on our prayer life as an alternative?

Thirdly, perhaps we should all be focussing on social justice instead

I was particularly taken by the passage from the prophet Isaiah at Morning Prayer this morning which mocked those involved in what was termed “False Fasting”

And we heard reference to this in our Gospel reading this evening

In Isaiah 58

God tells Isaiah

“The fasting you choose will not make your voice heard on high”

“The kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
…to share your food with the hungry
provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

The cry for social justice is at the heart of the Gospel message and perhaps should be at the heart of your Lent?

But ironically, whatever route we take, we should all focus on the paradox of Lent

We have transitioned from a time of revelation in Epiphany – when we see Christ face to face  

To a time of darkness when all is seemingly obscured

But the paradox of Lent is that

  • through the darkness,
  • through privation and hardship

We can ironically see Christ more clearly –

When the lights are turned out, the candle burns more brightly

And – as the prophet Isaiah says – if we approach periods of penitence -properly 

“Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
Your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your guard”.

May you all have a fruitful and rewarding Lent