1st March 2017 – Ashwednesday
Isaiah 58: 1 – 12; 2 Corinthians 5: 20b – 6: 10; Matthew 6: 1 – 6, 16 – 21;
By Leslie Spatt
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and be forgiven for your sins. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. What are you giving up for Lent?
It’s all a bit depressing and negative, isn’t it. No wonder we get to this time of the year – which is dreary enough anyway with so many cold, grey, wet, windy and horrible days that never seem to end – and enter Lent feeling almost obliged to be miserable!
But here’s an alternative: Perhaps we can think about a somewhat different approach to Lent; which isn’t the sad, longfaced, breast beating sentiments saying that we’re all doomed sinners who need to grovel before a perpetually angry God, are worth nothing and deserve punishment. I’d like to offer a positive, creative journey through Lent which – yes – acknowledges that we are all sinners, just by being human beings we’re going to be that – but which sees in Lent a wonderful opportunity to come closer to what God really wants us to be. An opportunity specifically dedicated towards getting back to hearing and reading and praying about what Jesus actually taught, which was not only about our relationship with God and each other, but also how to become whole, complete human beings, living the life God intended. “The glory of God is humanity fully alive,” says one early Church writer, and how right he is!
Where to start? It’s a good question because a journey needs a starting point. It might be that we all need to accept that we do bad things, even if it’s sometimes for what we believe to be good reasons. In the words of a traditional confession, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” A healthy spiritual life uses the word “sin” as somewhat of a check point – not as a dirty word but as a reminder that there are things we definitely ought not to have done; and failure to act is often just as bad. When we sin, we need healing.
It’s an unhealthy negativity to think that God is always preaching “You’ve failed” at us. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful feeling to believe that God is saying instead “I know you can do better, try again” or “you’ve done the best you can right now but don’t give up hope of getting it right eventually.” Discovering how we can come to know completeness through healing of mind and spirit, genuinely saying sorry when we get it wrong and then letting go of any guilt we might feel, instead of constantly harping on about how God should punish us for being so wicked. A good regular conscience-scrub goes a long way to getting rid of a corrosive feeling of guilt and helps us in the process of healing – as long as we can truly believe we’re actually forgiven, which isn’t always easy to do. The Gospels show Jesus as tapping into the realms of psychology, healing people by assuring them that their sins were forgiven instead of simply getting rid of the physical symptoms of disease. Modern medicine is full of evidence that connects body, mind and spirit: when stress and anxiety and guilt are released – for which we might read “sins” – then our bodies can often give themselves over to physical healing.
Over the next few weeks we’re going to hear quite a lot about wholeness and healing; something which appears constantly in the Gospels and which is often mistakenly confused with “curing”. We could start with a better understanding of repentance. I wonder if healing could be paired with the original meaning of “repentance” – that word metanioa which means change of direction or change of heart, or…change where you are looking for happiness. Metanoia, repentance, means something fundamental, looking at the root of life patterns, where they might need altering, and leading us towards bringing them into line with Kingdom values.
When we choose the things we think will bring us contentment, happiness or comfort, they might not be very good choices. Having or earning lots of money could bring freedom from worrying about the future, or paying the bills. There’s nothing wrong with having or earning money, but the way it’s gained can be deeply unhealthy. Long hours only working, ignoring friends and family, chasing one narrowly focussed goal, stress and strain, sidelining the need for a spiritual life. It makes us into idolaters, worshipping money instead of worshipping God. And, as Christians we know that idolatry, however defined, is a sin.
And just as unhelpful is a conscious or subconscious pride in making sure our religious observances are noticed and praised. Does it make us happy to feel that others see and know about our devotions, know how much we give to charity; is it important to us that everyone is aware of how much we pray, and our outward actions show the world that we’re “doing Lent”, giving up chocolate and alcohol and dragging around the cross of deprivation? The Gospel we’ve just heard says that the healthy option is not to parade around being blatant about our practices, but to go away and pray privately, to give alms secretly, to dress and act normally even when fasting. Give up things for Lent; yes, it’s a good discipline. Taking on extra things might be even better! But don’t openly brag about it.
As for saying we are dust and we’ll eventually return to dust, ceasing to exist; in real terms that’s quite true. However… we aren’t merely dust in the sense that we’re insignificant and worth nothing. That could be one really negative interpretation of the ritual tonight. Isn’t dust something you get rid of, sweep away, step on; the Quentin Crisp theology of dust that says after 5 years of accumulation it just isn’t noticed any more. But think of this: We are truly made of dust, God created us from the dust, the smallest itsy-bitsy nothing-ness of the earth. The awe-inspiring truth is that this dust is the star-stuff of creation itself. Look around and up into the sky and realise that we are made of the same thing as the stars, we belong to the universe, we have been created from the fundamental essence of what God made in the beginning and God’s breath has given us life.
And we shall return to dust, not to nothing-ness but instead back into creation, to God. Throughout the journey between birth and death we manage to tarnish our glittering cosmic origins through sin because we’ve been given the ability to choose; and frequently don’t manage to get it right, preventing us from being the completely alive human beings we’re meant to be, which God wants us to be. When we get it wrong, there is no health in us. What a wonderful thing Lent really is, when we can concentrate on wiping away even a bit of that tarnish to come closer to the God Jesus shows us, to say Yes to the right relationships Jesus teaches us about.
Jesus asks people in the Gospels “what do you want me to do for you.” What do we want him to do for us? Instant curing of the outward symptoms, or a transformative healing of what’s really wrong with us? Let’s stop making Lent a miserable dirge, 40 days to be merely endured; and convert it into a positive experience, looking at ourselves as we really are and saying to God, “yes, I haven’t done all that well but I genuinely want to try harder, give me the strength to change and receive the healing I need.” Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me. Rejoice in Lent!
Leslie Spatt 2017