Ash Wednesday

This sermon was given by Rev Sue on Ash Wednesday 2019.

I wonder what you are thinking as you see Lent stretching ahead. Are you looking forward to it? I hope so, because although it’s a penitential season, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be joyful.

Lent was initially a time of preparation for Easter, especially for the adults who would be baptised on Easter day. The fasting rules in the early church allowed for one meal in the evening. Exact proscriptions varied – Pope Gregory banned all animal products but allowed fish. Now this was OK if you lived near the coast, but when later Spanish missionaries went to South America, they struggled a bit with the lack of available fish. So, they checked with the Pope whether a capybara was officially a fish, since it was amphibious. Exactly how creative their description of the giant rodent, which looks like an oversized guinea pig, was, we don’t know, but in the days before photography it was easier to be economical with the truth. The pope agreed and to this day catholics in Venezuela count it as a fish. We still eat pancakes the day before Lent starts, a tradition stemming from the need to use up eggs and dairy. You might have wondered why Lent is a 40 day fast, but is 6 and a half weeks long. The answer is that Sundays were never included as they are always feast not fast days.

Now days for most people it is the spirit of Lent that matters, not the rules of a fast. So, it has become a tradition to give up something. Alcohol and chocolate are probably the most common things, but it could be cakes and biscuits, becoming vegetarian or vegan or giving up caffeine. I think over the years I’ve done all of those at various times, and the caffeine was the hardest! The difference between doing dry January and Lent, though is that the first is usually health related, the second a spiritual discipline. When we crave something, but deny ourselves, we remember the reason we are doing it, and so we remember God and what he has done for us. An alternative to giving something up is to do something extra. To pray or read the Bible every day are obvious choices. One way of looking at it is self-denial. What aspect of my life needs to change to bring me more in line with God’s will? Pray about it, or talk to someone else, and you may be surprised what you hear. For some people the addiction they need to cure is over-activity, and going to bed earlier or taking time for yourself might be the answer.

But let’s get back to my initial point of Lent being enjoyable. A lot of people run marathons, climb hills in all weathers or do sports that the rest of us struggle to see as fun. I always see one of my greatest achievements as walking the Coast to Coast path from Robin Hood’s Bay, near Scarborough to St Bees Head on the West coast. It was 10 days solid walking – most of it beautiful, some of it, like the dual carriageway into Richmond downright tedious. But because I’m not at all sporty, I was really pleased to have completed it. St Paul likens us to athletes training to win a prize. And there is a great deal of satisfaction to be found in stretching ourselves to keep to a discipline. That feeling of achievement on Easter Day. So, go for it – decide your goal (and don’t make it too difficult) and have fun encouraging yourself to keep it.

For some people the enjoyment in Lent is to be found in the social side. If you like the idea of challenging yourself, why not take part in the “Forty days, forty items” challenge. Can we encourage each other to go through our wardrobes and give an item away for every day of Lent? (Although, mentioning no names, perhaps best not to try if you don’t own 40 things…). And come to the Lent group on Monday evenings on a similar theme, based on the book “consumer detox” which challenges us to live a more celebratory lifestyle by reducing our dependence on things. You could, of course read the book at home by yourself, but there is strength in doing things together. Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs, and St Paul always travelled with friends. A constant refrain you hear from people not in the church is “I can pray at home by myself I don’t need to come to services”. But there is strength and support in groups. One benefit of talking things through in a group is to discover that whatever your issue is, in most cases there will be someone who says “me, too!” In my work counselling at the prison the men often ask me “Do other people feel like this?” and I am able to reassure them that the thoughts and feelings they have never shared are actually normal and quite common. And in my meditation group we take great strength from the fact that we are all distracted, that none of us manages single minded concentration for 20 minutes. By opening up to each other we are reassured that there are others facing the same challenges as us. But the opposite is also true. By meeting in a group, we discover the wide diversity of reactions, interpretations and ideas. We begin to learn from each other, to see that other ways of looking at things are possible and to spark ideas. So, join us for friendship and inspiration this Lent.

Some of you will have been thinking that actually I am preaching to the converted. The seasonal purple, the examining of ourselves and the hymns that are slightly melancholy or ardent in the call to discipleship all appeal. And then there is Holy Week – that most emotional of all seasons when we can be lost in the story of the God made man who suffered for us. You may have loved the gospel reading – that poor woman, covered in shame who is saved from punishment, possibly death, by the intervention of Jesus, whose response is not to lecture or debate but to challenge the accusers to examine their hearts. For those of us with a taste for the dramatic and melancholy, Lent has always been enjoyable. But I’m guessing some of you are still unconvinced. You are naturally happy, extrovert people, and the emphasis on self-examination and sadness goes against the grain. But life has its shades as well as its sunny days. I remember visiting Uganda once. I expected it to be hot, as it is on the equator, but in fact, because of the altitude it is a pleasant summery temperature all year round. We were there in the rainy season. Light rain at 5 o’clock every day – you could set your watch by it – just for half an hour, and then back to sunshine. The dry season was the same, without the rain. No spring, summer, autumn or winter. And after only 3 weeks I was glad to get back to the English weather, where each day is often different from the last. It is good to have contrast. If you don’t enjoy Lent, then you can look forward to Easter, in the knowledge that the Easter eggs taste so much better if you have given up chocolate for Lent.

So, whether you enjoy the drama, the challenge, the companionship or the prospect of a joyful Easter, there is something for you. So, join us in the journey of Lent.


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