The Revd Margaret Legg
70 years ago Coventry Cathedral was destroyed by the Luftwaffe. Since the 14th century it had stood, a solid and majestic witness to God. Overnight its interior was reduced to rubble – to dust and ashes.
Today, Ash Wednesday is a day of penitence to clean the soul, to wear sackcloth and to cover one’s head with ashes. All ancient Biblical traditions. During the service you will be invited to have a cross of ashes marked on your forehead, as a sign of penitence and mortality. The signing is accompanied by the words remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. This is based on God's sentence on Adam in Genesis 3:19, as he expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The words remind us how precarious life is and of how quickly all that we build and earn can crumble away, turn to dust and ashes in our hands.
Perhaps we’re going through life quite happily when we get run over and are whisked off to intensive care. Perhaps you run a small business which you’ve carefully built up over the years and at long last it’s viable and beginning to make a profit. Then something out of your control happens and it crashes. I read in the paper last week of a woman whose business, a school teaching English for foreign students collapsed when foot and mouth disease hit the UK and bookings from Europe dried up – too risky. With debts of £38,000, life looked bleak. She kept afloat, until her husband died of cancer and then she crumbled.
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. And the words continue: Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. The kind of sin from which we are exhorted to turn is, it seems to me, that of pride, of being so self-reliant that we think we have everything under our control, so self-obsessed that we perhaps forget that things happen, things fall apart. The words remind us that God, not ourselves, is the bedrock of life and it is only in him that we can safely place our trust to guide and sustain us through life.
Lent is a time not for enlarging ourselves, but for enlarging our relationship with God. Return to him with all your heart cries out Joel. However we mark Lent – giving up chocolate, attending our Lent Course, giving to our Reckless Charity, remember this is about moving away from self-centredness to God-centredness, about being reconciled with God, as Paul puts it. We do not for ourselves, but for God, to grow closer to him. And we are to do it discreetly! Avoid looking miserable because alcohol is off the agenda, pray where you can be undisturbed and out of the public view. This is not about enlarging our own importance but about enlarging God’s importance in our lives.
Standing in the wreckage of Coventry Cathedral the morning after its destruction by bombing, the Provost, with ash still warm from the fires, wrote on the East Wall, behind the shattered altar, the words that Jesus cried out from the cross: ‘Father, forgive.’ Later he was to have them inscribed in the sanctuary wall where they remain, within the rebuilt and reshaped cathedral complex.
May this Lent be a time when we reshape our relationship, with the God who is love and who is always ready to forgive.