The Precentor - Revd Canon Gilly Myers
The great black cloud looming over the Quire behind me reminds me of the time when that great erupting volcano in Iceland (with an unpronouncable name) spewed out all its burning ash for weeks – hanging around in the atmosphere, grounding all aircraft in the region, and finally settling on the ground as thick as snow
As the title of this Holy Day suggests, ash is the symbol of this day.
It is the symbol of contrition, humility, sorrow and penitence; A symbol that is also an indicator of the state of our world.
The ashes of mourning and tears… mourning for a lost innocence, perhaps, a childhood snatched away by others who satisfy their lust or place weapons into young hands and train them for war.
The ashes of mourning… for lost relationships; bonds broken between friends, family, communities and nations.
The ashes of the villages ravaged by fire as the people fled; the ashes of cooking wood amidst the stench of the cold, fearful, refugee camp.
And as ashes turn to dust – they become…
The dust of parched ground that once was fertile; the hot sun baking ever harder upon it year by year.
The dust of Genesis, the Biblical origin of humankind; the stark reminder of our mortality; of length of days; of tragedy or aging; of disease, death and decay.
Ash Wednesday is a time to repent of our sins. Personal sins, perhaps, failings and weaknesses; our priorities, habits, attitudes and behaviourIt is also a day to recall that, beyond ourselves, we are integral parts of human structures that can also be in need of healing or reformation.
We cannot deny those features of our society that are institutionalised and deeply seated. Our wastefulness; the tonnes of food thrown out; tossing away rather than mending; replacing goods simply because they are out of fashion; the ease in which we use energy for our comfort, so luxuriously. And we only have to think back over past months of national and international politics, widespread sexual abuse, gender inequality and those very beautiful and moving David Attenborough documentaries which showed us stunning oceans so horrendously and shockingly marred by the huge floating islands of non-biodegradable plastic.
Isaiah (in Chapter 58) is calling a whole nation to repentance - and it is apt that we should consider wider issues, alongside our personal sins.
And so, we all shall be smeared with ash on this Ash Wednesday.
We shall be reminded that from dust we are made and to dust we shall return.
Yet this is not the time merely to languish in the despair of our sinfulness, miserable sinners that we are. There are things that we can do.
The message of Isaiah and other prophets is that fasting without right conduct is in vain; it is meaningless. Fasting, sackcloth, dust and ashes all have their place – and if we didn’t believe that we wouldn’t be here today.
Isaiah is saying ‘don’t just say sorry – do something to show that you mean it’.
- loose the bonds of injustice,
- let the oppressed go free,
- relieve people of their burdens,
- share your food with the hungry,
- house the homeless,
- clothe the naked,
- look after your own family,
- don’t pass the blame or speak evil,
It’s all there (in chapter 58).
That is the sort of penitence that God wants to see. Can we do that?
Isaiah has thrown down the gauntlet – but he doesn’t finish there. For although are created with a limited span of life and influence, and our holy God is eternal and almighty – God is a just and all loving judge.
By God’s mercy and love, shown to us most of all in Jesus, we are offered forgiveness; a new start; wiping the slate clean; our debt is cancelled.
What does forgiveness feel like?
Isaiah puts it like this…
Forgiveness is like
- light rising in the darkness;
gloom being overturned by a shining midday sun.
- it is like a deep thirst being quenched in a watered garden where a spring of water never fails.
- It is like deserted ruined buildings being rebuilt and inhabited, with new security, new life, new vigour.
And, for us today, perhaps, it is like one of those days of darkness, torrential rain and thunder storm, when a shaft of sunlight suddenly cuts its way through the clouds, radiant against the gun metal of the brooding sky, and is adorned with the dazzling beauty of a resplendent rainbow.
By God’s mercy and love, shown to us most of all in Jesus, we can be assured that we are offered the abundant gift of forgiveness.
Thanks and praise be to God.