Sermon for Wednesday 2 March 2022
Ash Wednesday 2022
Why does today mark the beginning of a period in which Christians seek to avoid pleasure? Many of us will give something up for Lent: reduce the amount we drink; go vegie; take up something else up that we don’t really like doing the rest of the time.
What is gained from depriving ourselves of the things that we like most?
The answer is, much is to be gained. And if you want to work out why, you could do a lot worse than reading a novel by the French C 19th author Joris Karl Huysmans. It’s called “Against Nature,” and it’s one the most peculiar books you’ll ever read.
It has no plot to speak of, but simply recounts the attempts of its main character to find fulfilment through sensual pleasure.
In each chapter he explores to excess a different form of physical gratification. In one he fills his house with beautiful paintings and exquisite sculptures. In another chapter he tries to find artistic perfection through reading avant garde poetry. He has endless affairs with gorgeous courtisans, and eats and drinks himself to oblivion.
He even sets up a laboratory in his home to experiment with oriental scents and perfumes, and grows a garden of exotic, poisonous flowers. In one of the most famous passages, he wants to begin a menagerie and buys a tortoise, whose shell he has studded with gold leaf and precious jewels to make it even more beautiful.
When he has exhausted all these louche attempts to attain aesthetic perfection, and to gratify every sense, there is but one pleasure left to him, which he has not yet explored – he starts a vestment collection.
We read over several pages about all the chasubles and copes he buys, the fabrics he fondles, the damasks orphreys he yearns for. And guess what, like all the other things he has tried in every single chapter, in the end even his vestment collection fails to completely satisfy him.
As the perfect icon of the futility of his search, the tortoise he had studded with gems finally keels over, unable to bear the weight of its bejeweled carapace, and dies.
What we learn from that novel, and what, I think we are called to learn afresh every Lent is not that pleasure is bad per se. We are not gnostics who despise the physical and hate it simply because it is created. No what the novel reveals is pleasure on its own, pleasure disconnected from the one who created it can never give us complete satisfaction.
God gives us a beautiful creation to enjoy and rejoice in, but our enjoyment of it must draw our hearts back to the one who bestowed it upon us. Taking delight in that which is beautiful, in the things that taste nice, or which we enjoy doing, should prompt us to see in them a reflection of God’s beauty, and his bountiful ordering of our creaturely existence.
Things which are pleasurable and beautiful point beyond themselves to that perfect experiencing of God’s presence which we hope for in all eternity. For life with God will be the consummation and perfection of all our enjoyment, all our pleasure, all our sensing, and seeing, as we are caught up in the perfect vision of God.
So we give up things which are pleasurable to show that this mortal fallen world is not our ultimate goal. During our lives here on earth we are always in some sense strangers and pilgrims, making our way to God.
This is exactly what we are signifying when we have ash placed on us to remind us of our mortality – the fact that one day we will return to dust, and that beyond it, we hope for something more than the mortal life we live now.
The culture in which we live sees our physical surroundings as the only reality there is.As Christians we value it, and cherish it, but we also see how it points beyond itself to the reality of the God who created it, and that one day it is destined for re-creation in glory. To worship the physical without reference to its maker would be idolatry; to despise the physical despite its maker would be idolatry too.
As we begin Lent, it is no bad thing to resolve to deny ourselves something for the sake of Christ in order to draw closer to him. Not because the physical is bad, but because joyfully and freely giving something up points us beyond the here and now, and the simple gratification of sense and appetite, to the enjoyment we were created for – that eternal seeing and being seen, that sensing and being sensed, that knowing and being known by God which we call heaven.
Fr Peter Anthony