Ash Wednesday 2011
Location: St Paul's Cathedral
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground, in the dust.
We all begin in the same place. Darwin and Dawkins agree with the Book of Genesis. We are creatures of the dust – star dust in fact. The name “Adam” means in Hebrew creature of the dust. In the myth of the Paradise Garden, the Lord God says to Adam: “dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return”.
It is the truth about human existence that we are part of the universe but more than that we are conscious participants in the drama of the universe; we are the universe consciously reflecting upon itself. Every beast of the field and every fowl of the air was brought to Adam and he named them.
Some choose to remain earthbound and regard humans as essentially clever but rapacious bipeds. Others hear the call to go beyond the earth bound. The journey into spiritual life, however, into life in all its fullness as a human being never forgets our starting point because Jesus Christ teaches that the first step in becoming a human being is to refuse to be a little god.
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
who being in very nature God
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant.” Philippians II: 5-6
Jesus bends down close to the humus and disengages from the righteous anger of those who bring the woman caught in adultery before him.
We all have a surface self which we manufacture as life goes on. It enables us to deal with the world and the people around us. In course of time the surface self which we must develop if we are to function in society becomes a crust and what begins as a protection and a way of doing business becomes a burden. The crust cuts us off from the vitality of the fountain of life which wells up from our spiritual centre. The crust must be pierced rather than reinforced by self justification.
Real spiritual progress from earthbound existence towards life in all its fullness as a human being is impeded by all kinds of illusions about ourselves; by the fact that we are slaves to all kinds of drives and desires which exist in the psychic zone which lies partly hidden beneath the surface self.
This zone is the source of the powerful and sometimes volcanic anger which can erupt when triggered by some apparently trivial event. When we feel a surge of irritation with someone we have only just met it is often an indication of what we are covering up in ourselves. The psychic zone is also the cauldron in which projections are brewed; we project our fear; our self disgust or our desires onto some celebrity or public hate figure like the hapless woman dragged before Jesus.
He lets their righteous anger exhaust itself before he asks them a question about themselves which pierces the surface self – He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he returns to the humus and the crowd melts away leaving Jesus alone with the woman.
There is no question but she is guilty as charged. Jesus lifted up himself and we are meant to think of his being lifted up upon the cross. The words “lifted up” reverberate through St John’s gospel. There is no condemnation but rather there is a way opened for transformation – Go and sin no more.
There is much precious wisdom for us in this story as we set out on our journey to the empty tomb from an existence which tends to slump back into the merely earthbound; an existence which is stale flat and unprofitable to the new life of Easter where in solidarity with Jesus Christ the human face of God we can enjoy life in all its fullness as a human being. As St Irenaeus said: “The glory of God is a human being who is fully alive.”
What are the lessons for us in our journey to Easter?
Refuse to be a little god and stay close to the humus. Sin by contrast is treating ourselves as the centre of the universe; turned in upon ourselves either in admiration or even less attractively in self loathing.
Examine yourself and withdraw those projections which come from the shadows within which we have not seen through. If we cover up the shadow world within then it has power to do us and others great harm. If we look at he shadows and the shame, it hurts but they lose the power to do us permanent damage.
As we go on our way to Easter how should we travel? Anthony the Great who went into the Egyptian desert to confront the projections, the fears and desires of the inner world was visited by a seeker after life in all its fullness. Abba Pambo asked Anthony, “What ought I to do? and the old man said to him, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past but control your tongue and your stomach”. Advice from the desert is bracingly “in your face”.
Life in all its fullness is the gift of God. You can, by employing certain spiritual techniques, cultivate a state of inner serenity. But that is not life in all its fullness and creativity. Instead consumerism has even made a commodity of spirituality. Conversion is following the way of Jesus Christ; turning away from being a consumer of the world – a clever but rapacious biped – towards being a citizen and a contemplative. The joy and glory which is disclosed along this way makes other ersatz versions of the spiritual life seem poor substitutes for the real thing.
The Bishop of London’s Ash Wednesday sermon was recorded at St Paul’s and is available to view on YouTube.