Sermon for Ash Wednesday High Mass and Imposition of Ashes Wednesday 1 March 2017
ASH WEDNESDAY, 2017
Sermon preached by Prebendary Alan Moses, Vicar
DOES LENT STILL MATTER?
That is the title of a series of Lenten talks at Morden College which I have been asked to be the opening speaker next week. The former Bishop of Kensington who has organized the course did admit that I was not his first choice: well there’s a suitably Lenten dose of humility for me! That was the Bishop of Southwark, but he had managed to get himself double-booked. Bishop Colclough tactfully refrained from saying how many others on his contact list he had tried before reaching my end of substitutes’ bench.
Does Lent still matter?
Well, I assume that we must think so or we would not be giving up the best part of our evening to be here. But let’s take a few minutes to remind ourselves why.
First of all, Lent is a season, a period of time, a biblical 40 days. All time is God’s and there is no time in which we cannot serve and worship him. God does not need the 40 days of Lent, but being human and not divine, we do. Like the Sabbath, Lent is made for man not man for Lent. We need particular times to remind us of particular aspects of our faith: be they feast or fast. Most of us can only do a limited amount of spiritual multi-tasking.
The forty days we begin today leads is forward to the celebration of Easter. Feast follows Fast. Preparation comes before Celebration. External signs mark the character of this time: purple vesture, restrained music, absence of flowers; no Gloria or “A” word; ashes on foreheads.
Being creatures of flesh and blood, indeed of dust, we need these outward and visible signs, but as the Gospel warns, these are meant to signify a deeper and renewed attention to God and a transformation of life which springs from it.
The need for a season like Lent is supported in an oblique, back-handed sort of way by the secular world. Having appropriated many a religious festival and practice as a marketing opportunity, “Fish Friday” seems to be the latest marketing ploy, a world which had largely abandoned religious devotions with no financial potential, has now found itself having to re-invent Lenten disciplines to deal with the consequences. So we are now invited to take part in “Dry January,” a period of abstinence from alcohol, in order to recover from the excesses of Christmas and New Year festivities. In a society gorged on sugar and fat, and becoming more obese by the year, we are urged to diet and exercise in order to lose weight and become more healthy before the National Health Service collapses under our collective bulk. People join self-help groups which sound like prayer meetings without the prayer, in order to overcome addictions to alcohol, drugs or gambling.
In a frenetically busy society in which we are bombarded with such an overload of information and images that we cannot possible assimilate, much less use to good purpose, we are encouraged to practice “mindfulness,” or to disconnect from the social media which absorb so much time and attention.
In a culture in which all sorts of people are expected to say sorry, politicians and church leaders make apologies for evils past or present; even ones over which they had no control. It’s often a different matter when it comes to our own failings. Then we can soon marshal excuses for our misconduct: it was our upbringing, it’s all our parents’ or teachers’ fault.
Appeals and advertisements in the media, chuggers and Big Issue sellers on the streets, urge us to give in support of some good cause or another.
I don’t wish to knock many of these secular re-workings of religious practices. They should remind us of things we as Christians have often forgotten or neglected. But as Christians we must recognize that for us there is another dimension to all these which makes a crucial difference: that dimension is our relationship with God and neighbour. It is the Jesus whom we follow into the wilderness and on his way to the cross.
So we practice fasting and abstinence to deepen awareness both of our dependence on God for all that we receive from his bounty and of the lot of so many in our world who are deprived of such blessings. We practice discipline in consumption, not to obtain the body beautiful, a bit of a stretch for some of us anyway, but to care for the bodies which God has given us to be used to his glory.
As we fast and pray, we are drawn into Christ’s struggle with temptation, his battle against evil.
We take time to pray, we meditate on scripture, so that our minds being freed from the countless distractions of life, we may give our attention to God and our lives be re-ordered according to the priorities of his kingdom.
We practice almsgiving so that our hearts and hands might be opened to share something of the generosity of God. If you have not got your Lent Appeal pack yet, they are available by the door.
We examine our lives and repent of ills committed and good deeds left undone, not to be imprisoned in guilt but so that we might be set free to serve Christ.
And we do all these things, trusting not in ourselves, but in the grace of God.
So, does Lent still matter? Well, the world has not changed and in this life we still need to; so yes, it does! Let’s make the most of it.