Sermon for High Mass – Ash Wednesday Wednesday 14 February 2018
Sermon preached by the Vicar
Readings: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51.1-18; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21
Bishop Pete Broadbent, the Acting Bishop of London, caused something of a storm in a holy water stoup recently by using an ancient and technical liturgical term, “faffing” to describe what goes on in high church parishes like this one.
The burden of his complaint was that some in our tradition pay more attention to liturgical externals than to teaching the catholic faith. A reporter from the Torygraph picked this up and set out to find some thin-skinned Anglo-Catholics to take umbrage. She managed to track me down, but I am pretty thick-skinned. I simply replied that the bishop was given to plain speaking – calling a spade a shovel – and that it would do us no harm to pay attention to what he had said.
If you have been listening to sermons here over the years, his remarks will hardly be novel. We have heard them from more than one preacher. When he appointed me as Vicar, Bishop David Hope described All Saints to me as “The Temple of Dagon,” and the ministry of its clergy as that of “temple prostitutes in a gilded cage.” Both bishops are rather given to pulpit hyperbole – exaggeration for effect!
Well, here we are, gathered like the people of Israel in the book of Joel, in solemn and penitential liturgy to begin the Lenten fast by having ashes imposed upon our heads.
We would need to have pretty cloth ears not to have noticed that there is a tension in the readings for Ash Wednesday which reflects one present in the life of our tradition.
Joel calls the people of Israel to a public liturgical act of repentance.
The Church calls us to the observance of a Holy Lent by the observance of various activities:
- Self-examination and repentance
- Meditation on Scripture.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does not condemn activities like prayer and fasting almsgiving, but he does have some severe things to say about how they should be practiced. They are not excuses for religious display; and most certainly not for parading our spiritual superiority.
But, we are material as well as spiritual beings, we have bodies as well as souls, we are not disembodied spirits. We need physical practices, things to do, to enable us to grow in our faith.
We live in a culture which does not encourage or support the practices of faith. So we have to be more self-conscious and intentional about it.
In the world of Oxford Street, today has not been Ash Wednesday but Valentine’s Day; the co-option of both a Christian martyr and romantic love to the cause of marketing and money-making.
Even the best brains of Charlotte Street advertising agencies have not yet come up with a way of making money out of ashes and works of penance; so, for the moment at least, Ash Wednesday remains untouched by commercialism.
But our ‘fallenness’ and frailty means there will always be the temptation to use these helpful spiritual practices as a sign of our superiority; of belonging to some exclusive club, showing that we are in the know by our demonstrative genuflections or extravagant signs of the cross; or arcane discussions about ecclesiastical haberdashery– as if the re-evangelization of Europe depends on such things. Nowadays we can do this not just in church or in the street but on Facebook.
This is a tension which we cannot resolve in this life; nor should we try, because it is a critical and creative one. The call to examine our motives and practices keeps us honest and means that they become means of grace rather than of self-satisfaction.
On Sunday morning, when I got to the Grosvenor Chapel where I was preaching, there was a man sitting in one of the clergy seats who announced that he was Jesus Christ and this was the Second Coming. When I got home, I was told that here, a different man had marched up to the pulpit and stared up at Fr. Barry Orford for several minutes while he was preaching. Unfazed by this, Fr, Barry just carried on. In his sermon he cited the counsel of the great Anglican spiritual teacher of the last century, Evelyn Underhill, on keeping Lent. (If something is worth repeating once, it’s worth repeating twice.)
Lenten disciplines and practices, Underhill says, should be:
- Inconspicuous, “wash your face and anoint your head;”
- They should not inconvenience others – if you have given up meat but are served it when a guest, just eat it quietly. You can abstain from it for the other 39 days and
- They should be costly – rather more sacrificial than giving up chocolates then!
Thinking about our almsgiving in Lent should help is think about how we use all our resources of money, time and energy.
Thinking about praying and meditating on scripture in Lent should aid us in thinking about how much or little time we spend on them the rest of the year.
Thinking about fasting, should make us consider our consumption of food, drink, and entertainment.
Thinking about self-examination and repentance in Lent should help us see how all of life should be examined.
Lent is not meant to be like six weeks of Community Service; once you’ve served your time you can go back to the way things were before. Its disciplines are meant to move us on in the spiritual life, not leave us where we were. They are meant to have an incremental effect in forming us as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Those who built this church and their fellows were very conscious that the externals of catholic worship and devotion needed to be built on the firm foundation of teaching and spiritual discipline. So the members of the group associated with the Margaret Chapel and All Saints called “The Engagement” bound themselves to the observance of a rule of life which included the recitation of the Prayer Books offices of Morning and Evening Prayer; regular self-examination and confession; the observance of the Prayer Book’s fasts as well as its feasts; and practical works of charity and care. These are the things which ground our devotions in reality and lend them authenticity. They are the things which help us be true disciples of Jesus and, in the words of today’s post-Communion Prayer, to “follow in the steps of his most holy life”.
Bishop Pete’s comment will probably be forgotten before long, but the question that underlies it should not be; because the words of Jesus in today’s gospel cannot be – however much we might like them to be. They will go on being proclaimed every Ash Wednesday, to challenge and disturb us and so they should and must be. Lent is not meant to be comfortable: but it is meant-for our common good and the salvation of our souls.
In his defence, I should point out that Bishop Pete was at the early Mass here in All Saints this morning on his way to work.