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/ 17 February 2010

Ash Wednesday 2010

Location: St Paul's Cathedral
Date: 20100217

Imagine the scene. Jesus is teaching in the Temple where there is much coming and going, babble and chatter – more like Paddington Station than St Paul’s. Suddenly there is even more clamour. A group of moral vigilantes arrives with a wretched woman in tow. Their clamour is full of indignation and moral outrage mixed with a crafty plan worthy of a Today interviewer to trap Jesus into answering a loaded question in order to elicit some comment that can be used against him.

Perhaps the indignation is especially fierce because we always cover up those parts of ourselves that we find shameful and then project them on to other people. If we ever find ourselves disliking someone at sight at first meeting then thank God that He has given you an insight about what you dislike about yourself and what you are covering up.

What does Jesus do? He stoops close to the ground and doodles on the earth. He bends towards the humus, disengages and says nothing. The spiritual pilgrimage of Lent begins with closing our mouths.

This is the sad springtime of the Christian year. This is a day for joy as we recognise that a life which is all Carnival with no ensuing lent simply makes us sick.

Much of the time we live on the surface in the midst of the strife of tongues. Our ego life located in that surface self which we have built as the years have passed is subject to a great clamour of competing thoughts and emotions. Fear of the future; remorse for the past; our place in the competition for glittering prizes; lust; anger; greed; all jostle because most of us are not simple people with a longing for peace and a genuine desire to love and be loved.

It is as Thomas Merton says a life spent in “a dream of multifarious, confused and agitated existence.”

Meanwhile the deserts are spreading in the inner life.

“In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away” [W.H.Auden]

It is in the inner life where our deepest selves can drink from the inexhaustible well of divine love. We can be refreshed and restored to joy. If that sounds fanciful then it may be that the desert has advanced a long way is us. Cynicism like all sins is addictive.

At the heart of Lent, the sad springtime of our Christian year, is a pilgrimage to the new life of Easter. We deny fuel to the surface existence where the clamorous ego is located. We fast to be free from all those drives and cravings which keep us in prison; shackled to the treadmill of surface existence; and frustrates our re-connection with the freshness which dwells within. We long for the desert to bloom and for our lives to be filled with the love that is God.

I am not of course talking about some emotion which can evaporate as quickly as it can arise. For God as we see him in Jesus Christ love is not an emotion, it is self giving which has the power to transform life.

The symbolic obtuseness of modern culture makes it hard for us to see the relevance of the vision we are given in Exodus XVII where the Israelites cry out for water and Moses is instructed “to smite the rock” and the water flowed out of the rock to refresh the people.

What are the implications for us this Lent?
We must soberly look at our own lives and note how far the desert has spread and the meaninglessness of so much that occupies our time. “Killing time” is one of those phrases in ordinary language which convey deep wisdom.
Ash Wednesday is a particular occasion for this sober examination but it is a continuing theme throughout Lent. We have to be clear about our starting point and all that impedes us in or pilgrimage to new life.

“In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise” [W.H.Auden]

We remove the fuel which keeps us trapped on the surface. At the same time we tackle in a determined way any addictions and unjust and selfish ways of life. We are given energy for the spiritual pilgrimage the more we live as we seem. Jesus says “go and sin no more”. Don’t beat yourself up in useless remorse; don’t waste your time like the moral vigilantes in judging other people – change your behaviour.

All this means different things for different people. We need to work out what it means for us this Lent individually. Reducing the fuel can mean food or drink; it can mean other stimuli and distractions. The Church and this Cathedral offers confidential guidance as you make your own rule.

Then our longing for life and love has to be clear and simple and that simplicity is consolidated in silence. Most of us do not have the opportunities of Merton the monk and as the father of four children and a job in the city I am under no illusions abut how difficult it is to achieve any regular immersion in silence. Just as we can find time however to read a daily newspaper, if we regard the prayer of longing expressed in silence as vital to our growth and refreshment then we must find the time.

The new life of love which is not an emotion but self giving cannot be communicated as an idea in words; it can only be communicated to us as a gift from the living God as we see him in Jesus Christ. He depends on our receptivity but he is always ready top give more than we can conceive or desire in our present state of spiritual maturity.

Beloved this is a most hopeful time of the year; our sad springtime. I pray that our thirst for new life may be deep and our necessary work to clarify our desires and to make ourselves ready to receive the risen Lord Jesus when he comes at Easter may be urgent and persevering.


About Richard Chartres

The Rt Revd Richard Chartres KCVO was the 132nd Bishop of London from November 1995 until March 2017.

Read more from Richard Chartres

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