It is still horribly cold…but the days are beginning to lengthen at last! And that’s where we get the word ‘Lent’ from. The old English word ‘lenten’ means the time of lengthening and growing days. And that time of growth has for centuries been a pointer to the idea of spiritual growth and renewal.
Traditionally, spiritual growth and renewal has always been assisted by penitence, fasting, giving to the poor, and prayer. None of these ideas are only about self-denial. Like anointing with oil, fasting was believed to be a purifying and strengthening challenge…a preparation for some challenge yet to come. And the idea of giving things up for Lent was always balanced by the requirement to give something out to the poor: for we surely cannot claim to love the God whom we have not seen if we do not love the poor at our door that we do see.
That is why each year our Bishop invites us to participate in his Lent Appeal. This is an extra call on our purses – at a time when we are encouraged to think most deeply about what it means to be a follower of a Lord who gave up everything for us. This year, Bishop Christopher is inviting us to contribute to two causes: one at home, and one abroad. Homelessness at home; and helping those affected by climate change abroad.
This is a time for tidying up and preparing for Spring and Easter. In our gardens there are dead leaves to clear away, bushes to trim, seed to plant. And so it’s a time for tidying our spiritual lives as well. In a moment, I will invite you all to receive the sign of the cross, drawn in ashes and olive oil on your foreheads. This is a sign of repentance…a sign that we recognise ourselves to be human beings who fail – and who seek the forgiveness of our heavenly father.
The priest and poet John Donne once preached a sermon to King James I, the authoriser of the King James Bible. In it, he gave a fascinating list of the kind of sins which he perceived in himself. He said:
“Forgive me O Lord; forgive my sins, the sins of my youth and my present sins….Forgive me my crying sins, and my whispering sins, the sins of uncharitable hate, and sins of unchaste love, sins against thee, against thy power O Almighty Father, against thy wisdom, O glorious Son, against the goodness, O blessed Spirit of God. Forgive me my sins against him and him, against superiors and equals, and inferiors; and sins against me and me, against mine own soul, and against my body, which I have loved better than my soul.”
But then he concludes…
“Say thou to my sad soul: ‘Son, be of good comfort, thy sins are forgiven thee’. Let me be so blessed, that I shall envy no man’s blessedness. O say thou to my sad soul ’Son, be of good comfort, thy sins are forgiven thee’.”
This then is the heart of Lent…growth and spiritual renewal stem from an appreciation of who we are…failing human beings, who like a plant that needs the sun, cannot grow without the Love, Wisdom and Power of our heavenly father. That’s why, alongside the Bishop’s Lent Appeal, we also invite you to participate in a Lent Course again this year…a chance to deepen your understanding of the wisdom and power of God.
As we receive the Ashes, today, we will be reminded that we are ‘but dust…from dust you came and to dust you shall return;’. To the modern ear this sounds a rather morbid thought…but actually it’s intended to remind us, very simply of what we are…
We are made of dust. Stardust, in fact…our atoms once burned in the heart of the Universe before they became grouped together with the ball of rock we call Planet Earth. From the nutrients, atoms and molecules of that planet, each of us came forth. Our mothers ate what the planet provided, and we came forth. We are the product of a physical and biological process. But what else are we?
Christians proclaim that yes, we are made of Stardust…but we are also given life by the Spirit and Power of the living God. It is his power that sustains us, his wisdom that guides us, and his forgiveness which frees us to become all that we can become as Children of God. From dust we came, and to dust we shall return…but thanks be to God: our Spirits will sing, and our souls will be set free.
So let me invite you to receive the Ash cross this year, as a sign of your commitment to carry on growing in God…to reach beyond the dust from which you were made, to become the child of God you were destined to be.