Sermon for High Mass – Lent 1 Sunday 5 March 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
The thing about Lent, if we enter into it purposefully, is that, more obviously than other seasons, it moves us on, takes us from one place to another. We begin in the wilderness and end in glory. As the season progresses we focus on on Our Lord’s final journey to Jerusalem and the events of his Passion, death and resurrection. But we start in the desert, and with dust and ashes.
Ashes have added resonance now because so many of us opt for cremation. When the priest says to us, on Ash Wednesday, ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’ we are able to visualise the ashes we may become as easily as the ones we are about to receive on our foreheads.
I seem to have become the go-to priest for ashes burials among my family and friends. Even while on holiday, about which I fear you’re going to hear so much more in future Parish Papers, I managed to bury the ashes of three people, one of them a family member. So ashes were on my mind well before Wednesday.
When visiting Sydney I make a small pilgrimage to the burial place of my mother, her parents and grandparents, and my grandfather, William Bowie. But his son, my father, although cremated in the neighbouring crematorium, is missing.
The preacher at my father’s Requiem remarked that he rarely did things the easy way. This proved true in death as in life, as he requested that his ashes be scattered in Lake George. Lake George is about 3 hours drive from Sydney, on the way to Canberra; and, being an Australian lake, it sometimes lacks an element generally thought essential to lakes – water.
I’d got there in time to see him before he died, and to celebrate his funeral Requiem. But this offbeat, not to say inconvenient, request meant I could not be present, having had to return to the UK. Lake George, fortunately, proved to be liquid that day and I have some unusual photos of my cousin wading out and scattering my father’s ashes. Perhaps mindful of this episode my mother made no burial requests when she was dying, so her ashes were placed in a grave with her parents and grandparents. And that conjunction of bodies and ashes seems apposite at this season.
On Wednesday, making the sign of the cross in ash on the foreheads of those who had come to the Eucharist for the beginning of Lent I said to each person, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. There is also an alternative formula, ‘repent and believe in the Gospel.’
The prevalence of cremation these days makes talk of being dust especially apt. But it won’t do to get stuck at that point, convicting ourselves of sin and sitting like Job on an ash-heap scraping our metaphorical sores.
One of my contemporaries from seminary served his title in a church with a confessional or reconciliation room containing a huge crucifix, to which the large congregation is very attached. The parish priest, it turned out, was even more attached to it. Because the crucifix is so large, instead of veiling it in Passiontide they take it down for ten days. But the incumbent, my friend noticed, couldn’t bear taking this crucifix down. He would weep as he removed it. It was as if he was stuck there, with this life-size Jesus, on the cross and he really didn’t want Easter to happen. We need, in Lent, to go through the whole journey with our Lord and come out at the other end. That is where ‘Repent and believe in the Gospel’ – the good news – comes in, to complement and complete our remembering that we are dust.
Lent can help us with that if we use it thoughtfully: it can help to move us along, out of our rut; it can challenge us afresh to be ready to celebrate when Easter comes. We should want to be different by the time we reach Easter, and ready for a thorough celebration. This season is most effective for us if we try to imagine what sort of person we would like to be by the time we come to the Easter celebration, how we would like to have grown and moved on. Then we can spend these forty days working on that change with particular effort.
My father’s strange request might, of course, have had yet more in common with our dusty theme if the lake had been dry. The desert is a place where the dust of creation and our dust can merge, perhaps all too easily. And a desert which sometimes becomes a lake is a great image to put beside the temptations in the wilderness we heard about today.
In scripture the desert is the place of exile and distress, the place of testing. It is the location of the forty years’ journey to the promised land, which began with an escape through water, the Exodus. Easter brings us there, to the waters of life, the baptismal celebration which is at the heart of the Easter Vigil Mass.
The forty days of Jesus’ withdrawal recall those forty years in the wilderness, during which the people were indeed put to the test: temptations abounded and, unlike Jesus, they succumbed to many of them. But they didn’t remain in exile; there was a destination, the promised land, the land of milk and honey, and they got there in the end. Jesus didn’t stay in the wilderness; neither should we.
Jesus is the recapitulation of the old Israel even as he is, for Matthew, the new Moses. In all three temptations in the wilderness Jesus responds by using texts from Deuteronomy, the book which reflects on the experience of the Jewish people liberated from Egypt. But, illuminating as such parallels are, that is history – what is Lent for us now?
One of the best things about Lent is that, in moving us from A to B, it signals that repentance is not a one-off event, it is neither a ‘blink and you’ve missed it’ opportunity, nor a single achievable aim to cross off our bucket-list. We can, we should, always be turning again to God and re-examining our response to him, in order not to get stuck on the cross, but to approach the Easter banquet, of which we have a foretaste here at the altar this morning.
I think my father knew that. He didn’t want us to go to a dreary cemetery somewhere and think we were visiting him, stuck in the past. He loved Lake George and he wasn’t very fond of municipal cemeteries, having presided at hundreds of burials himself. For him, if we were going to remember that he, and we, were dust, and would inevitably return to our element, he wanted that element to have a broad and beautiful horizon; he wanted a reminder that this was all part of a bigger picture, a glorious adventure in which new creation is always continuing and changing things, even with the risk of dryness as well as the promise of nourishing waters.
Our creator’s will for us is always life and not destruction.
‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’
‘Repent and believe in the gospel’:
Turn again to God and the future under him, and trust that, from him, the news is always good…