Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Ash Wednesday chapel reflection

A sermon given at OCMS (my work) chapel on Ash Wednesday, 18 February 2015

As a Catholic working in an evangelical Protestant institution, I’ve often wondered how my Catholicism is seen when it becomes visible at work, as it does this morning. My suspicion has always been that most of you think that last night, decadent papist that I am, I looked like this: 

and that today, I’m going around looking like and thinking this

The first is somewhat wide of the mark, the second, less so.

There’s little doubt that Grumpy Cat could be considered what many these days might refer to as ‘my spirit animal’, especially if anyone has heard my delicate opinions on religious observance and behaviour: from the stiff high church my-rubrics-are-better-than-your-rubrics ‘More lace is grace’ crowd to the oft zealous bonhomie and non-ritual of many a low megachurch, few have escaped my lifelong tendency to snark.

So it may come as a surprise when I say ‘Ritual matters.’ One might wonder how someone who believes that can relentlessly mock those who take ritual so seriously? On the surface, holding both positions may seem untenable. Look beneath the surface, and it begins to make sense.

Ritual is utterly human; we all engage in it – for those who would claim that low churches don’t, just observe the unspoken rules of when and how to react within the ‘unstructured’ service, or ask them to change the Bible Study time by 15 minutes. But we often forget that ritual is a vehicle, not a destination. When we obsess about its appearance or form, or proudly deny its necessity, we have made ritual a destination, an end in itself, where it becomes meaningless, even destructive – the latter being seen most starkly in the lives of those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, where an anxious need for ritual for its own sake, to ward off some deeply felt impending catastrophe, can make it impossible to live in the world.

But ritual as a vehicle is something else altogether: it leads us to something larger, to a deeper reality, even if on the surface, it may seem trivial. For example, every morning when I come in, I ask Rachel if she wants me to put some water in the kettle for her. 9 times out of 10, the answer is ‘no’, but the point of asking is NOT to get a ‘yes’– it is something larger – a way of connecting at the beginning of the day.

If the small rituals – ‘Do you want coffee?’, the goodbye kiss for a loved one, the lighting of a pipe – matter, how much more the large ones that mark the moments where we cross thresholds, caught in that liminal space where we have one foot in each of two worlds, unsure how to leave one and enter the other? Moments where we make the choice to die to our old lives to be resurrected into a new – baptism; coming of age; marriage; ordination?

Ritual as a vehicle leads us into new, necessary, often difficult places – but they are needed, and what unfolds there is holy. Here, ritual becomes an outward sign of inward process, of inward grace, even though that process may not unfold as we expect, or even as we hope. Less dramatically, ritual guides us through liminal liturgical days of the year: Jewish Yom Kippur; the Muslim Lailat il Qadr; and yes, today, our Ash Wednesday. Ritual matters. Ritual is sacred.

It is for that reason that every year, on this liminal day when I take my first step into Lenten twilight, I wake up an hour early, travelling down the road, entering the dark, pre-7.30 mass hush of the Oratory to the faint, ever-present smell of incense, so still that the rustle of the brethren’s thin breviary pages can be heard through church. The confessional door opens and shuts, doing brisk trade for a weekday morning, the church slowly filling as those of us ready for work in this world make time for the other. After a while, several distinctive treads converge on the sacristy from favourite pews, and out of the silence, we move into the rhythm of the mass: collects, responses, readings, the imposition of ashes with the stark words, ‘Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return,’ communion, then out into a world where Ash Wednesday is just another work day, where one no longer quite belongs. Tonight, I will attend the longer solemn mass, allowing me to re-enter and anchor in the Lenten world.

‘But why?’ you may ask. What matters about Ash Wednesday, about Lent? If I had 50p for every time I’ve heard, ‘I don’t do Lent,’ I’d never have to work again. Given the post-mass coffee conversation in January, which sounds like parrots echoing, ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ – my usual response being, ‘Church or being nice to people, not sure which’ – anti-Lent sentiment is easy to understand. Too often, Lenten abstinence becomes a matter of secular goals and pride – I should know, I still brag about the year I gave up curry – rather than spiritual practice.

If not with giving up teaspoons of sugar, or sweets, or even curry, where do we begin? As with all ritual, by going back to its roots, to what it is meant to symbolise or re-present: Our Lord’s 40 days fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry, where He was tempted by Satan. Here is where we begin.

How then, do we model our Lent on our Lord’s time in the desert? What can show us the way? First, from the story of Jesus’ temptation, we learn that He was led by the Spirit– this withdrawal was no capricious decision of his, but divinely mandated and led, and so should ours be, through praying that G-d’s will be done and by making space for the Spirit to lead us.

He was led into the desert: that starkest of environments where nothing can be hidden, where all things are stripped back to their essentials, where resources must be drawn up from hidden depths, places that may not even be known to exist. Too often, we build our identity and our faith from the outside in: based on how we think it should look; on what others, particularly the given culture, see as ‘good’ or as ‘success’; our need for approval, which we mistake for love. So our Lent must be about stripping this false identity back and rebuilding it properly from the inside out: connecting with and coming right with ourselves and with G-d, allowing that to emanate outward to permeate the world, stripping back the barriers that keep us from fully being in our life in Christ: our defences, our need to control, our need for approval, our desire for power, our need to grasp – all the things that arise from fear which drive out our ability to live in perfect love.

He was tempted by and engaged with the devil. Giving something up or a glib 'I'm not going to be negative' is often a way of avoiding engaging with anything of substance, an avoidance of looking at ourselves unflinchingly and confronting our demons head on. We cannot ignore Satan when he tempts us: we, like Jesus, must answer. To truly enter Lent, we must search every corner of ourselves, opening every door, entering our darkest places. If we note where he tempts us, engaging him there with Christ, who has also been tempted, beside us, Satan cannot help but live out his angelic name, Lucifer – bringing light to bear on what was once in darkness, which can then be brought before G-d to be transformed.

Afterwards, Our Lord was ministered to by angels. G-d is always with us, offering support in many forms: through prayer, friends, Scripture, even through things we may consider our weaknesses. Even when He seems absent, because we must find our way to Him in free will, we must have faith that He is with us and allow Him to be with and minister to us in the ways He chooses to do so.

Our Lord's temptation in the desert is an initiation – a dying to the old and rising to the new, foreshadowing his crucifixion and resurrection in Holy Week and Easter. He was led to the desert, fasted, was tempted by Satan, and ministered to by angels – and when He emerged, he was no longer the private man He had been, but the Son of Man who was to heal, preach, and die on the Cross for our sins. So too must Lent be an initiation for us: a dying to that which keeps us from G-d and rising to new life in Him.

In this desert time, this Lenten twilight, let us not mistake stripping back to the heart of things, following in Christ's footsteps, for becoming less human. Too often we see our humanity as something to struggle against and excise rather than something to grow into and make whole. In few places is this mindset clearer than in the ubiquitous Christian question: "What would Jesus do?" – a purported attempt to help, but really a spiritual bypass to cut off another's very human mess so it doesn't bring us too close to our own. It’s not a question that makes any sense, at least not in the answers we offer. If you’d asked my father what I would do when he suggested an arranged marriage, he’d have said, "She’ll be upset, she’ll fight, but she’ll do it.” Never would he have dreamt of saying, “She’ll fill two bin bags with clothes, leave us a note on the fridge, and move out, never to spend another night under our roof.” I couldn’t have said that. And if we don’t know what those nearest us – or even we - would do, how much less do we know what our Lord & G-d would do? As I like to remind people when they ask that question,

Jesus got angry and...

...Jesus gave into doubt, agony, and fear in Gethsemane.

As our creed states, Christ was fully human as well as fully divine: in becoming man, He sanctified every aspect of our humanity: our hunger, our thirst, our joy, our love, our pain, our rage, our doubt – and therein lies the real answer to WWJD: Jesus would live the mess and help others live theirs. To follow Him, we must do the same: we must become more human, not less. To do otherwise is to deny the Incarnation and the goodness of G-d's creation, to make the grave error of mistaking wounded for evil. Our humanity needs inhabiting, not avoiding; healing, not destroying. Lent is about stripping back down to and coming into right relationship with our humanity and with G-d.

So often, I find that literature pulls everything I want to say together in a beautifully succinct, layered narrative, and today is no exception. I close with a passage from The Summer Tree, the first book in Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry. In this trilogy, 5 Canadian university students are suddenly transported to the first world from which all others were born, Fionavar, each finding their vocation as the story unfolds. 

In this moment, Paul Schafer has offered himself as sacrifice in place of the High King of Brennin, whose refusal to undertake the required three days hanging on the Summer Tree has brought drought to the land: showing that when we refuse to carry our cross, refuse to become more human, we are not the only ones who suffer. Paul offers himself as a way to punish himself for the car crash in which his girlfriend, Rachel, died. We join him on the third day, after many trials, a divine visitation, and support from a mysterious grey dog who has stayed with and fought a battle for him:

And he understood then, finally: understood that it had to be naked, truly so, that one went to [G-d]. It was the Tree, stripping him down, layer by layer, down to what he was hiding from...

He was the Arrow now. The Arrow on the Tree, and he was to be given naked or not at all.

And so, on the third night, Paul Schafer came to the last test, the one that was always failed, the opening. Where the Kings of Brennin or those coming in their name, found that the courage to be there, the strength to endure, even love of their land were none of them enough. On the Tree, one could no longer hide from the living or the dead, from one's own soul. Naked or not at all, one went to [G-d]. And oh, that was too much for them, too hard to be forced to go into the darkest places then, so weak, so impossibly vulnerable.

And they would let go, brave Kings of the sword, wise ones, gallant Princes, all would turn away from so much nakedness and die too soon.

But not that night. Because of pride, of pure stubbornness, and because, most surely, of the dog, Paul Schafer found the courage not to turn. Down he went. Arrow of the G-d. So open the wind could pass, light shine through him. Last door.

As Paul's heart finally broke, as his tears for Rachel finally fell, so too did the drought of Brennin break and rain fall, bringing promise of new growth to a land long barren. When we choose to carry our cross, enter fully into our humanity, engaging with both our light and our deepest darkness, we are not the only ones who are blessed.

May we who step into the desert this Ash Wednesday, following in Our Lord's footsteps, find the courage to be led by the Spirit, rending our hearts and not our garments, allowing ourselves to be stripped down, coming before G-d naked and vulnerable through that last door: so open that the Spirit's breath passes and G-d’s light shines through us, emerging into new life with Christ, Our Lord, on Easter Day. Amen.

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