The Dean - The Very Reverend Andrew Nunn
Joel 2.1-2,12-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20b - 6.10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21
‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
Those are the simple but powerful words that will be said to each of us in just a few moments as a cross is marked on our forehead in ash. ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ It strikes me that what we hear today, on this Ash Wednesday, this year, at this time, is a call to humility and that call and that word, humility, is all about remembering that we’ve been created from the hummus, the stuff of the earth. We are creatures of the earth, part of the stuff of creation.
All the things that Jesus refers to in the gospel - the trumpeting of almsgiving, the ostentatious praying, the over indulgent religious observance, and the storing up of treasures on earth – they all point towards what can be a basic lack of humility. Our almsgiving, our praying, our fasting are not done to raise our status with others, only God should know. We need to know where our true treasure is to be found, where our true self-understanding is to be found, where our true status is to be found, and that is with and in God.
We should be humbled by recent events. The flooding that so many communities are experiencing, the droughts that our sisters and brothers in Zimbabwe have been experiencing, the fires that raged through Australia, they are all a consequence of our arrogant abuse of the planet. The rise of the Coronavirus, our inability at this moment to halt its advances into the status of a pandemic, makes us realise, or should make us realise, that whilst we are so clever, we need to recognise that nature is even more inventive.
Sir David Attenborough has galvanised public opinion to the reality of climate change and the threat to bio-diversity precisely by making us realise our place within the whole of creation. The sheer beauty of his documentaries fills us with awe and wonder when we see how dazzling creation is and how small we are as part of it, but, at the same time what a devastating effect we can have upon it.
That is why, this Lent, we’re being encouraged as a church to live better, to care for God’s creation and as the Archbishops have said
‘to rebuild our relationship with our planet, and in turn with the God who is Lord of everything.’
That demands that humility which brings us forward in a moment so that ash can be placed on our heads and we can hear those powerful words said to us ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
But we mustn’t just hear the words, we must act and change. That is the call that the prophet Joel makes to the people in our First Reading
‘return to me with all your heart’
Return to God, in all humility, who took the stuff of the earth and formed, you, formed me, who breathed life into us, who set us in the midst of a good creation, who gives us the free will to make the choices – good and bad, arrogant and humble - that we wish to make.
The poet John Donne ponders our relationship to all created things in his beautiful Holy Sonnet number 12 “Why are we by all creatures waited on?”
WHY are we by all creatures waited on?
Why do the prodigal elements supply
Life and food to me, being more pure than I,
Simpler and further from corruption?
Why brook’st thou, ignorant horse, subjection?
Why dost thou, bull and boar, so sillily
Dissemble weakness, and by one man’s stroke die,
Whose whole kind you might swallow and feed upon?
Weaker I am, woe’s me, and worse than you;
You have not sinn’d, nor need be timorous.
But wonder at a greater, for to us
Created nature doth these things subdue;
But their Creator, whom sin, nor nature tied,
For us, His creatures, and His foes, hath died.
The humility of God overwhelms us, who embraced the dust of which we are made, and showed us how to live and how to die. As we come to be ashed, as we come to be fed in this Eucharist, we do so with humility, because that is how God has come to us.