Ash Wednesday 2015

The Bishop delivered his Ash Wednesday sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Rend your heart and not your garments and turn unto the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness.

In many ways we are in the midst of a golden age. Millions of families around the world have escaped from grinding poverty. Diseases like measles and malaria are in retreat. 17,000 more children every single day will now live to realise their potential whereas before they would have died. At the same time global population is stabilising.

It is not all good news. A billion people remain in seemingly inescapable poverty in places where government is weak or where there is civil war.

And then golden ages tend to breed complacency and a foreshortening of moral vision. As we scan the horizon this Ash Wednesday and contemplate the prospects for our children and grandchildren will the golden age continue?

The passage from the prophet Joel read as our first lesson omits a significant chunk describing a great ecological disaster – a plague of locusts.

“The land is as the Garden of Eden before them and behind them a desolate wilderness; yea and nothing shall escape them.”

In our own time there is a tension between economic development and environmental sustainability. The Stockholm Resilience Centre recently concluded that earth’s life support systems; resources like fresh water are being stretched to breaking point.

I returned last week from conversations with Muslim scholars in Jordan close to the site where Jesus was baptised. It was a shock to see the Jordan river reduced to a brown trickle, a vivid illustration of earth strain.

As citizens of this golden age there is a temptation for us all to pray the prayer “Lord let it last my time” and to immerse ourselves in our busy lives. The opposite temptation is to dwell on the apocalyptic possibilities to such an extent that we are immobilized.

If we long for a golden age for all, the first thing to recognize is that we are not likely to achieve it by following the path we are on today.

The prophet Joel issues a warning:

“Blow ye the trumpet in Zion and sound an alarm in my holy mountain”

but it is not an invitation to despair. Chapter II continues with reassurance:

“rend your heart and not your garments and turn unto the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful slow to anger and of great kindness”.

Lent is a pilgrimage to Easter; a journey into deeper awareness as a preparation to receive the new life which is God’s gift to those who love him and follow his way.

Over the past few years as Christian thought has declared a truce with science on the basis of mutual irrelevance Lent has been privatized, internalized and confined to a battle against our personal addictions. The focus has been me and of course it is right to start by taking heed to ourselves and beginning the revolution at home. But the focus of the prophets is our relationships, yes to the world within ourselves but also to our neighbours and to the earth itself. The Bible tells the story of a whole creation in which love is central and in which God commands justice and teaches wisdom to establish fruitful relationships.

The Bible is also realistic in discussing the threats to the harmony of creation. Shalom, the peace and well-being that is God’s intention is disrupted by ignorance, injustice and making gods in our own image and worshipping them. The prophets call this idolatry and we think that it is not our problem because there is very little Moloch worship in the Square Mile. But in reality every human being seeks to shape the future by reference to some idea we regard as attractive or fearsome. Most of the time we are dominated by notions like money, status, glamour and idolatry of this kind is an ever present reality. Ignorance and idolatry disrupts our connectedness to the web of life of which we are a part and substitutes a posture of dominance and exploitation.

As this way of life gains a hold on us we consume the earth rather than contemplating and sharing it, tilling and repairing it. And the more we consume and acquire stuff the more our awareness of our intimate, loving relationship with all that is, is diminished.

A Christian believer is not a doom-monger. We long for the golden age to be open to all but we recognize that the path we are travelling does not have this destination. It is vital to be clear about our direction of travel. The vision of the destination which Christian faith sets before is of a wider us; a deeper now; a fuller good life.

A wider us. We have a tendency to mince and atomize humanity; to put limitations on the sense of who is my neighbour, our family or our nation. Jesus Christ in the story of the Good Samaritan answered the question of “who is my neighbour” by saying that it is anyone whom we can befriend is a neighbour. We should always be at work pushing back the limits on active neighbour love.

A deeper now. We are temporary stewards of this planet with obligations to those who have come before us and to our children and generations yet unborn. We should not load them with debt or use up their resources.

A fuller life. Jesus said [John X: 10] “I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly” having more and more stuff can be a substitute for being more, and growing richer on soul. But the fuller life is not something that we can possess. It grows as we give it away, receive and work to set others free because in the end my life is full, if your life equally full.

A preparation for the new life begins when we realise that we shall not reach our goal by the path of more and more consumption. Lent is time for reducing consumption and artificial stimuli of all kinds. Traditionally Lent has involved abstinence from meat and dairy products. Meat in particular is such an inefficient converter of grain to protein and also uses a great deal of water that if all the world started to consume at our level there would be a huge strain on resources.

But reducing our consumption is only one part of increasing our awareness and indeed if it is treated as a test of willpower it can even make us more in love with ourselves. Fasting and abstinence can easily lead to anger or pride unless they are accompanied with deeper prayer and serious meditation on the scriptures.

Our Lenten rule must be personal but always addressed to increasing awareness as we prepare to receive the gift of a fuller life, a deeper now and a wider us which God holds out to those who keep company with Jesus Christ. Our pilgrimage passes through the wasteland via the foot washing on Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion on Good Friday, the empty tomb, the new fire of the resurrection on Easter morning and then it continues beyond.

It might be a good beginning to read the whole of the book of the prophet Joel – it is very short and should be read slowly. St Peter used a text from Joel at the beginning of his sermon at Pentecost:

“And it shall come to pass that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy and your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions.”

May God bless you in this sad springtime of the Church’s year. May you have a joyful Lent.