Ash Wednesday Sermon preached by Canon Simon Butler
Someone said to me the other day that this Lent we should focus on something other than abstinence. We’ve had enough of that in the past year. Not that you need it, but you have my permission not to give up anything this Lent!
Instead, this Lent, can I invite you to explore The Mystery of God? Over the next six weeks we will delve into what it is Christians believe about God, and to discover what it is that draws us so deeply in our search for God. Ultimately, if God is God, then it is our interest in God and our knowledge of God that is the hallmark of what makes the church the church. While we can be known for our welcome, our warmth, our inclusion and our service of neighbour here at St Mary’s, what distinguishes us and sets us apart is our interest in God.
But let’s start with the two great mysteries of our existence: life and death. For these, I think we are best served by the poets.
Perhaps the greatest mystery we experience is the gift of life itself. In his poem The Salutation Thomas Traherne captures this as if a new-born child was becoming aware of his own self in the world:
These little limbs,
These eyes and hands which here I find,
These rosy cheeks wherewith my life begins,
Where have ye been? behind
What curtain were ye from me hid so long?
Where was, in what abyss, my speaking tongue?
When silent I
So many thousand, thousand years
Beneath the dust did in a chaos lie,
How could I smiles or tears,
Or lips or hands or eyes or ears perceive?
Welcome ye treasures which I now receive.
I that so long
Was nothing from eternity,
Did little think such joys as ear or tongue
To celebrate or see:
Such sounds to hear, such hands to feel, such feet,
Beneath the skies on such a ground to meet.
New burnished joys,
Which yellow gold and pearls excel!
Such sacred treasures are the limbs in boys,
In which a soul doth dwell;
Their organizèd joints and azure veins
More wealth include than all the world contains.
From dust I rise,
And out of nothing now awake;
These brighter regions which salute mine eyes,
A gift from God I take.
The earth, the seas, the light, the day, the skies,
The sun and stars are mine if those I prize.
Long time before
I in my mother’s womb was born,
A God, preparing, did this glorious store,
The world, for me adorn.
Into this Eden so divine and fair,
So wide and bright, I come His son and heir.
A stranger here
Strange things doth meet, strange glories see;
Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear,
Strange all and new to me;
But that they mine should be, who nothing was,
That strangest is of all, yet brought to pass.
Perhaps this Lent you can ponder this sheer gift of life that you have been given. Take time to see what it is, the things around you, the capacity to interact with the material world through your senses. There’s a direct line between wonder and mystery, isn’t there? The questions that immediately present themselves – how can this be? Who put me here? What am I here for? – bubble up as they do for Traherne in his amazing flight of fantasy.
Or perhaps, faced as we have been with questions or mortality in the past year, you can undertake what an earlier generation would have called a memento mori, a sober consideration of the mystery of death? This is a proper consideration for the season of Lent, as we will be reminded when we receive the sign of ashes: Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thy shall return.
In his poem Virtue George Herbert, invites us to consider what Saint Francis called our Sister Bodily Death:
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky;
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night,
For thou must die.
Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye;
Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.
Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My music shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.
Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.
We live in an age where death is easily-ignored. My sister, who trained as a nurse, had her life changed by working on a rehabilitation ward, as she cared for people who had experienced brushes with death. Such people, along I imagine with the many we have seen in what can be a long recovery from COVID-19, no longer take life for granted. They learn the ability to live in the present, with a new sense of perspective. The medieval tradition of memento mori – keeping something visible to remind you of death (often it was a skull) – is one way of contemplating the mystery of death, and therefore the value of life.
The mystery of life and the mystery of death. Mystery is a slippery word. A brief explanation will help. Mystery is a biblical word, but we tend to think of it as something like a puzzle or an enigma that somehow goes beyond understanding. Often when used in a religious context, ‘mystery’ is used to express the idea that, in the end, something is unknowable, or at least that reason alone will not reveal the meaning, and that it must simply be taken on trust. But the word ‘mystery’ in biblical and theological terms doesn’t mean that – quite. A mystery in Scripture is something secret, but it isn’t something that remains unknowable; rather a mystery is something that can only be known by revelation. Such a mystery may still result in our inability to comprehend it but, with the eye of faith, we can enter into the truth of a mystery, even if its fullest meaning remains ineffable. Over the centuries Christian theologians have explored the nature of the mystery of God, but with the eye of faith. Thus it is possible to mine the richness of revealed truth, even if, in the end, our ability to comprehend remains limited. Even the greatest thinkers of Christian history have, in the end, come to that limit of comprehension. There is always an element of mystery in our faith, but it is the Mystery of God, who is a God who reveals himself to the world.
So when faced with the mystery of life and the mystery of death, what value does revealed Christian truth have to offer? What is the mystery of God in the midst of life and death. Both Traherne and Herbert hint at it in their poems. For Traherne, it is not difficult to see (as he implies) the new-born Christ wondering at the flesh he now inhabits; for Herbert, the contemplation of death does not lead to despair – it is the rash gazer who weeps over death.
There is a deeper truth that the finality of death. Two words in Christian doctrine invite us to such awareness: Incarnation and Resurrection. The former celebrates God’s presence in the world in human flesh. Pondering that mystery – of what it must be like for God to be like us, and for what it tells us about God that he becomes one of us – is the journey of a lifetime. What, for example, does it say about ethics that God took on human flesh? Something about the value of all human life? And what might that say for our Lenten journey, if we were to live as though that were true?
And resurrection celebrates God’s victory over death, reminding us to think not just on this life in all its wonderment, but to think on the eternal purposes of God. Maybe it’s right for us to focus on this world in its needs and wonders, but Christian doctrine invites us to an eternal perspective, of the way in which God is loving the world back to himself, so that even death is to be defeated. We enter Lent knowing the outcome and it’s the eternal perspective that invites us, paradoxically, into more fully living well in this world. We might rightly ask ourselves how we might be judged by an obituary writer at the end of our lives, but this Lenten journey asks us to contemplate how we might be judged by a God who loves this world and us. How might we be judged by God for our living in this world?
Both incarnation and resurrection of course come to us through the God-man, Jesus Christ, who is the Mystery of God, God revealed to us in all God’s glory. The mystery of life and death is shaped and defined, in Christian thinking, by the life and death of Jesus Christ, who makes God known. One final poem captures the mystery of life and death from a divine perspective. I leave the final word today to R S Thomas:
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
Let’s not focus on loss and abstinence this Lent. Let’s focus on what God has given us in Jesus Christ. Amen.
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