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/ 22 February 2012

Ash Wednesday 2012

Location: St Paul's Cathedral
Date: 20120222

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.

This Ash Wednesday 2012 there is a note of urgency and relief.

It was only 20 years ago that we who dwell in the West could entertain the thought that we were on top of the world. It was 1992 when an American sage published a book entitled “The End of History”. We were within sight, we thought, of building heaven on earth – without God of course but with the assistance of liberal democracy and market economics.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and a new economic philosophy in China; with unchallengeable American military hegemony and the prestige of Western ideas there were those who predicted the end of boom and bust and instead an era of growth and happiness without limit.

Now with alarm bells ringing all over the world; with the return of religion as a factor for good but also for ill in global affairs; with a financial imbroglio described by Chancellor Merkel as the gravest crisis faced by Europe since World War II; with so much of the world converted into waste that there is now a continent of plastic soup, the Great Garbage Patch, equal in size to the USA, floating in the Pacific; now the outlook is very different.

We seem to be entering a period in which the narrative of the past; a narrative of growth without limit with no end in view beyond the process itself looks increasingly implausible and unsatisfying. As we meet this Ash Wednesday, our perspective on the world is being refashioned in response to contemporary economic and environmental challenges. The search for a more convincing narrative explaining why we are where we are and how we emerge into a more hopeful future is urgent.

“Even now says the Lord return to me with all your heart”

We have discovered that if the reference to God is edited out of our perspective then the world simply becomes a theatre of human willing. We come to regard ourselves as gods and our wills as sovereign. We no longer experience ourselves as participants in an animated universe but as detached exploiters of mere matter. Dominance is substituted for connectedness in our relations with the world around us. Everything is degraded into a thing; an object to be possessed but which cannot give us joy.

The first step in becoming a human being is to refuse to be a little god. This is what Jesus Christ taught by coming among us as a servant. He embodied the truth at the heart of the Christian faith that “God so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us.”

On Ash Wednesday we get close to the humus – not with any artful, feigned humility but with a clear recognition that dust we are and unto dust shall we return. Genesis; Charles Darwin and Brian Cox all agree that we are creatures of the dust– star dust in fact.

Yesterday’s hubristic story is turned to ashes but not with the motive of leaving us in the dust or wallowing in an orthodox grovel. Jesus Christ came that we should have life and have it in all its fullness. Jesus Christ, the human face of the God who so loved the world that he was generous, is God’s embodied plan for a truly fulfilled human life. Human life in the Biblical perspective is evolving. We have not reached the end of history. Our destiny is not to turn more and more of the world into things but to be engaged with God in turning matter into spirit and to participate in the evolution of the human animal into the human being who is a partaker, as St Peter says, of “the divine nature”.

When impelled by the Spirit we go beyond ourselves in generous love; when we reach out to the God who so loved the world; when we embrace the world and first and foremost our neighbours with compassion then we discover within ourselves the Spirit like an inexhaustible well spring. As more and more of our life is translated into Spirit; as ego is diminished so that soul can grow; then we are equipped to play our part as spiritually evolved people in the unfolding human drama whose author is God. We come alive in a way that even overcomes death.

Ash Wednesday is an urgent call to conversion from an inadequate way of being in the world to the way which God intends. Genuine conversion to the way of Jesus Christ consists in turning away from deifying our own will; turning away from life as a consumer of the world and turning towards being a communicant; a citizen and a contemplative.

What implications does all this have for our keeping of Lent and our direction of travel? Let me briefly point to four aspects.

First our relationship with God. Lent is a time for deepening our work of prayer. There is no spiritual evolution without conscientious prayer which takes us beyond the surface self, the mental egoic level; through the wasteland of the psychic zone of cravings and shadows in the subconscious to the place which Moses discovered in the wilderness when he struck the rock with his staff and the water flowed. “In the deserts of the heart let the healing fountain start”. The spiritual heart is the very centre of our being where we have access to the infinite mystery of God.

The Bible shines light on the plan for human evolution in which Jesus Christ is the central figure. It would be good this Lent to get a clearer sense not so much of individual passages but of the whole drama recorded in the Bible.

Then following the Generous God, who so loved the world, entails putting our relationships right. Lent is a time for owning up to our own mistakes and for making peace with one another. If there is someone from whom you are estranged Lent is a time for making every effort to repair the breach.

This is true not only on an individual level. Those who belong to the international Occupy movement have articulated a widespread sense of outrage evidently shared by our Prime Minister at the apparent disconnect between fairness and the way our financial system has operated in the recent past. St Paul’s Institute and London Connection – a joint venture between myself and Ken Costa, a respected city figure – continue to provide a platform where such issues can be explored and constructive proposals developed. This is an initiative which will continue even when the tents are moved as a result of today’s court ruling.

It is easy to cause chaos in a system which for all its faults has worldwide lifted millions out of disabling poverty. Clearly simply being a bishop does not qualify anyone to pronounce on the way out of the Eurozone crisis but it is essential as the framework of our financial sector is re-shaped that the moral dimension is firmly in place. Consent for a social and economic order depends on a sense that the distribution of rewards and responsibilities is fair. The anger that results from the erosion of that sense of fairness can translate into discontent which can threaten the whole social fabric. We need not think that our country is exempt if conditions worsen and if youth unemployment in particular continues to rise.

In the recent past some pundits have spoken as if the laws of economics were autonomous and not in principle connected with questions of human flourishing as individuals and in society. In reality the market must serve ends beyond itself. We need to able to tell the story of how self-interest and the common good are profoundly related to one another. This is also work for a spiritually evolved Lent.

Then rectifying our relations with our neighbour both individually and corporately does not exhaust the reset that Lent requires. This is the season of fasting for joy and to increase awareness that we are accountable stewards of the earth not its possessors. Appropriate Lenten disciplines go beyond abstaining from chocolate and may involve a change in our attitude to waste and our use of resources. In reducing our own footprint on the earth; we make room for others in the Spirit of the Generous God.

I hope that you have already pondered how you will use the opportunity of Lent but it is not too late this very night to pledge and record some concrete action which will make a difference. All too frequently like the outraged scribes and Pharisees we point the finger at someone else. The Government; the Council; the Church should do something. Jesus Christ says to us this night as he said to the woman in the gospel story – “I do not condemn you but go your way and do not live turned in upon yourself [which is what sin means] but live generously.”

So we enter this season with joy. It is the beginning of our annual journey to the new life promised in the Easter mystery. It is part of our nature that life can come to seem stale flat and unprofitable but there is a way to the inexhaustible vitality of the Spirit which like a spring of pure and fresh water wells up in our spiritual heart once we have cleared away the debris which chokes it.

May God bless you in your journey to Easter.
Praise to you O Christ, King of eternal glory.

About Richard Chartres

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

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