Ash Wednesday, 10th February
Revd Kate Tuckett
It was just a few weeks ago that we were hanging fairy lights and tinsel, unwrapping presents, drinking bubbly, and celebrating the Christ child born into the world. It would be so easy to let that be the story of incarnation. But today we can make a choice, to face the reality of how this story of love continues. Today is a turning point in this story, a day to recognise our humanity and our mortality, and a day to remember that only God is God. Funnily enough while our culture totally overtakes Christmas and Easter with Santa and the Easter bunny and all the grotesque consumerism, nobody waits every year to watch the Ash Wednesday TV special. Our culture has no idea what to do with a day that celebrates the fact that we all sin and we are all going to die.
While the secular story of Christmas, with all its exhortations to spend a lot of money and to be happy, may be skewed, at least there are some reference points, of a baby born, of a star, of good news. But once we start talking about sin we are into territory that is far more difficult to navigate. Some areas of the church may say that sin is an antiquated notion that only makes us feel bad about ourselves; others may say that sin is the same as immorality and totally avoidable if you are good squeaky clean Christian. And when we look at how the sin is used in society, we’re looking at a brand name for ice cream. Or high-end chocolate truffles. Or cocktails. Or cigars. Keep piling up the examples, and we start to see that sin always refers to the pleasurable consumption of something, whether it’s eating or drinking or smoking or sex. It refers to a kind of indulgence. If these things were anything to worry about, we’d change the language, to talk about eating disorders or addictions. It’s hard to talk about sin in a world in which the word seems to refer to a trivially naughty pleasure, and we might indeed ask which would be the bigger problem to human thriving than a big bowl of Lindor chocolates or a religious bore condemning them.
So if are not to talk about sin in a way that makes us sound bizarrely opposed to pleasure, then we have to find another definition. Francis Spufford refers to it as the human tendency to mess things up – our active inclination to break stuff, stuff including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s.
And this is a truth we cannot avoid. We may be able to get some way through our lives without acknowledging our own propensity to do this, but unless we have a very high threshold of obliviousness, the moment finally arrives when we have to acknowledge it. It may be a common moment of failure --- when a relationship ends, or a career stalls or crumbles, or the glass of wine we enjoy at the end of the day turns into a bottle and starts to exercise power over every other hope and dream. But it needn’t be dramatic. It may be one day that you realise that your life bears very little resemblance to what you think you’ve always wanted, and yet you got here by choice, a long series of choices that temporarily outbid the things that you say you wanted to most.
And however we reach this moment of realisation, it’s unwelcome news, and that these things that we do and the situations we find ourselves in aren’t just an accident that keep happening to us, but part of our nature – that we are truly cruel as well as truly kind, that we are truly likely to take a quick nasty little pleasure in wasting and breaking love as much as we are loving. We are all sinners.
And this may be the point at which Christianity parts company with other religions. Jewish and Muslim laws of behaviour may be demanding but they can be kept – that’s what they are there for. Eating kosher or halal may involve being careful, but it is possible. Getting up for dawn prayer is, I imagine, a pain, but if you go to bed at a reasonable time it won’t deprive you of sleep. Virtue can be achieved.
Christianity does something different. It makes frankly impossible and lunatic demands. It says you should give all your possessions away, refuse to defend yourself, turn the other cheek, love strangers as much as your family. None of us can manage this, and the consequence is that everyone fails. All of us fall short. And it means that we cannot separate ourselves into virtuous and unvirtuous, into shiny happy good people and frightening repulsive bad people, because it acknowledges that we all have the capacity to sin, and whether that means flying a plane into a skyscraper or persecuting the fat spotty child in the playground, whether it’s getting into a drunken fight. or telling a story about an absent mutual friend which you know will cause pain but you tell anyway, because it’s just very very funny. We are all in this together. We all sin.
And if there comes a point when we no longer make sense to ourselves, we might do worse than to turn and to face one another. A community of acknowledged sinners ought at least in theory to be kinder to one another. And the other thing we can do is to turn to face God.
Of course we all have different experiences of how we meet God. My own experience is that in the moment of consciously turning towards this God-shaped space, almost invariably nothing happens. In retrospect we can sometimes recognise these moments as part of the bigger story of meeting God -- we may look back on the moment we have tried to turn to God and find ourselves altered. But we often need symbols to help us know God’s presence, to mediate God to us.
Today we take our first step on a path that will take us to Good Friday, where Jesus shows us just how God is God. In a little while, we will share the Eucharist. We will remember the final days of Jesus’ life, and make memorial of how the story ends. This story takes us to the very limits of humanity’s ability to mess things up. And it isn’t a story about some particularly bad people at a particularly bad time of history. It’s a story about all of us. The bread and the wine line up along a bloody pathway, but at the end of this path, there is forgiveness. As we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are joined to the act by which forgiveness comes. We eat forgiveness for whatever the particular load of sin it is that we bring to the table. We eat rejoicing that in spite of all the sorrow and the cruelty, and the reality of death, new life and forgiveness can always be found.
And that’s what the church is about. Forget about music or art or pointy hats or altar linen or rotas. These things are functional and they are important to make the church work, but they are all secondary in comparison. We eat bread. We drink wine. We make memorial of an act that allows us to admit our own mortality and brokenness and allows God to be God. We are forgiven, we are free, and knowing this, we can turn from the table to try and love ourselves, each other and the world a little less imperfectly.
And so on this Ash Wednesday, as we come face to face with the reality that all that we are, and all we can do fades in the light of the love that exists beyond us and in spite of us, we try to lay aside our own desire for success, for permanence, for immortality. And if as you come forward to receive thee sign of the ash and do not feel worthy to carry the blessing of the one who is all love, and justice and hope, come anyway, and carry the mark with you as a reminder that your worthiness is never a part of God’s equation.
This sermon uses material from:
Lawrie, C. (2008), Hold this Space, Proost
Spufford, F. (2013), Unapologetic, London: SPCK