Ash Wednesday: "Avoiding Exhibitionism"

The Revd Margaret Legg

Today is the beginning of Lent. It's a day of penitence to clean the soul, to wear sackcloth and to cover one’s head with ashes – all ancient Biblical traditions.

In our service you will be invited to receive on the forehead the mark of a cross of ashes, as a sign of penitence and mortality. The use of ashes, made by burning palm crosses from the previous Palm Sunday, is very symbolic. The signing of the cross is accompanied by the words: remember you are dust and unto 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 word Lent comes from the old English word for spring Lencten. The roots of Ash Wed and Lent lie in Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the holiest day in the Jewish year.  While the Jewish people were in the wilderness God commanded them each year to take 2 goats. The first, the scapegoat, was slaughtered as a sin offering. The second was allowed to escape with its life, though heavily laden with the collective sin of the Israelites. It was known as the escape goat, because unlike the first goat it escaped with its life.  A goat sent into the wilderness after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it (Lev. 16).

Carnival - This is a world away from yesterday, when we celebrated Shrove Tuesday by bringing a sense of carnival to W2 with our Pancake Race in Connaught St and then the Barn Dance last night, when the church was transformed! The word carnival – carnevale – means of course "goodbye to meat" and yesterday we bid an exuberant and very public farewell. Last night was great fun and quite a spectacle!!

We are overstimulated, the trouble is we live in a world which aspires to perpetual carnival with no ensuing Lent.  Our readings point us away from carnival time, to a different, calmer time; they encourage us to under stimulation, away from the over stimulation of so much of modern life. It’s very simple: eat less by fasting, possess less by giving alms and pray. As we do in this community by participating in Reckless Giving over Lent. It is a time for stripping ourselves of clutter, be it food or possessions and so simplifying our lives. It is a time for re-focussing on God through prayer perhaps, or spiritual reading, or appreciating more his creation. It is a time not for enlarging ourselves, but for enlarging our relationship with God, for moving away from being self-centred to being God centred, to growing closer to him, being reconciled to him, as Paul puts it in our NT reading. Whatever way we choose to keep Lent, we do it not for ourselves, essentially, but for God.

And so how we do this is important. First, we try to keep a balance! This is not about doing things to extremes. Years ago I knew a priest who, when he was an ordinand at Theological College, kept Lent by eating only nuts, seeds and fruit. After a few weeks his college principal summoned him and instructed him not to be so silly and to eat sensibly. This is not an endurance test (as it became for me when I gave up coffee one year) and how proud I was when I succeeded!

We also avoid exhibitionism! Do not blow your own trumpet (when giving to charity), do not go around looking fed up because you can’t have a chocolate or a glass of wine! Choose a time to pray when you can be undisturbed and out of the public view. This is not about impressing others and so enlarging our own importance.

It is a time for addressing all those things in our lives which separate us from God, for clearing and simplifying our lives so that we can find and appreciate God within them. We are missing the point if we don’t realise that Lent is a time when we should be starving not ourselves, but our sin. So I end with a poem I heard on the radio on Sunday by a 17th century Englishman, Robert Herrick, entitled

IS this a fast, to keep
The larder lean ?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?
Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?
Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A downcast look and sour?
No; ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.
It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.
To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.