Ash Wednesday - Choral Eucharist

  • Preacher

    The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn

  • Readings

    Joel 2.1-2,12-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21

Welcome deare feast of Lent: who loves not thee, He loves not Temperance, or Authoritie, But is compos'd of passion.

That’s how George Herbert begins his poem ‘Lent’, a real and warm welcome to a season that, on the face of it, can seem severe and demanding and against our every instinct.  We love to feast and not to fast but Herbert challenges all our conventional thinking by calling this fast a feast and ends by speaking of ‘banqueting the poor’.

In fact today is challenging in so many ways.  It seems to me that we’re obsessed now as a society with the twin ideas of identity and image.  How I look, how I choose to define myself, who I am in the eyes of others and in my own eyes is top of our agenda.  The pressures placed upon people younger than me to be acceptable to their peers in the image that they present on social media is frightening.  The idea that our identity is debatable and fluid is something that’s made us all rethink what we mean by identity at every level. 

And today all of that is presented to us as a feast in dust and ashes.  This is true humiliation, because we’re reminded that we were taken from the dust of the earth, formed in the image and likeness of God and to dust we will return.  That is the God-given identity that is ours, made for heaven from the stuff of the earth.

Then to top it all we’re reminded over and over again that we’re sinners, that the perfect image that we’d like to present to the world is no more than a covering of a darker reality that lies beneath, a reality that’s marred by sin, that has lost the perfection of baptismal grace, that is sordid.

Identity and image – both are challenged as we ‘welcome deare feast of Lent’.

Both Jesus in the Gospel reading and Joel in the First Reading are at pains to point us from the outer to the inner reality of what it is that we’re doing.  If we just want people to see us fasting, well, we have had our reward and it is short-lived.  But Joel says to the people

‘rend your hearts and not your clothing.’

They were all for ripping apart their cloaks as a sign of their remorse, all for sprinkling dust on their heads as a symbol of their penitence.  But was it all only skin deep?  That was the challenge then as it is now.  Does the cross in ash that we will receive in a moment simply remain as a mark of our penitence for all to see or does it penetrate deeper – to the heart?  That is the challenge.

Identity and image, who we are at the deepest level of our being, at the deepest level of our making.  Who are you? What are you really like? These are uncomfortable questions for us to be asked, uncomfortable questions for us to ask ourselves – who am I? What am I really like? Yet this ‘deare feast of Lent’ confronts us both with the questions and the reality.

Yet it is a feast because this, as every time we gather, is a feast of the realisation of the love of God for humanity, the love of God for you, the love of God for me.  As Paul says to the Christians in Corinth in our Second Reading

‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’

God shows the measure of divine love in Jesus who lived fully who we are, that we may live fully as he is.  God knows who we are – and God loves us.  As Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that great prophet of our age said from the pulpit of this cathedral,

‘There is nothing you can do to make God love you more; there is nothing you can do to make God love you less.’

However you identify yourself, whatever image you have of yourself, however you understand yourself, God looks at the heart of who you are and loves you.  And we wear the cross to simply remind us of that simple fact – God loves you, as you are – and on Good Friday we will see the cost of that.