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Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return

Bishop Helen-Ann's reflection for Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday reflection delivered in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Hamilton.
The Anglican-Roman Catholic Cathedral communities' service for Ash Wednesday.

Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18

Thank you very much indeed Bishop Steve for your warm welcome.  It is very good to be here.  The visible signs of unity that our joint-Cathedral services in Advent and Lent give are a vital witness to our City.  We are all richly part of the Body of Christ, and I rejoice in that!

I wonder how many of you might have given something up for Lent?  I recall a number of years ago struggling with having given up chocolate (which still seems to be a fairly popular option).  One evening I had almost given in as I recalled that in the fridge was a Cadbury’s Flake that belonged to my husband Myles.  I reflected that he probably wouldn’t mind if I had it, so I opened the fridge, reached in and discovered that it was wrapped in a post-it note which said: ‘Don’t even think about it!’  Immediately I put it back and realised the error of my ways!  

One of my favourite prayers in the Eucharistic liturgy is the Collect for Purity; you will be familiar with its words:

Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden;
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
so that we may truly love you
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

This prayer, which we say regularly perhaps gives us a tool to help us understand what the Gospel reading is saying.  I often find it difficult that here in the Gospel we are told not to show off our piety at the very point when we are about to receive a very public sign of ash on our foreheads!  As with the desire to better ourselves through giving something up, there is a danger in being seduced by the need for human approval rather than taking hold of the realisation that what really matters is our relationship with God.  Lent offers us an opportunity to reflect on where we are with God: what is working, and what needs to change.  We aren’t alone in that of course, because God desires to be in relationship with us, God is there to hold us when we fall short.  In that sense, the Collect for Purity speaks of an awareness of the importance of the inner life, that God knows the secrets of our hearts, and it is there that the real work needs to happen before the outer life of service can be applied.  Many commentators rightly point out that this reading misses out an important component: the Lord’s Prayer (which comes in verses 9-13).  The Lord’s Prayer itself presents us with the model to follow and the reason why it matters: to enable God’s Kingdom to flourish in the here and now.  If we attend to those words then that too guards against the human tendency to demonstrate piety at the expense of demonstrating what is in actual fact the glory of God: we are made in the image of God, even in all our brokenness and frailty.  It is not enough simply to pray, that needs to be matched with outward action.

I came across a quote from an episcopal friend and mentor of mine recently, which sums everything up about this day very neatly indeed, and why it matters for our lives as disciples.  Bishop Michael Perham was Bishop of Gloucester until his retirement recently.  He has been an immensely wise support to me since I became I bishop, and even though much of this has been conducted via email in recent years, his warmth and generosity always shine through.  These words have an added poignancy given that he anticipates this will be his last Easter following the cessation of his treatment for cancer.  I leave you with Bishop Michael’s words:

'It is the sign of the cross that is marked on our forehead.  It is not, of course, the first time that the cross has been traced there.  For, when new Christians come to baptism, they are signed with the cross, the sign that inspires them to confess the faith of Christ crucified.  The cross on Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our baptism.  In the innocency of our childhood, or in the ardour of adult commitment, we received in baptism God’s grace for our Christian pilgrimage.  That pilgrimage goes on being a struggle, so often an upward climb, but we are engaged in it still, thankful for that grace without which the struggling would have long since lost.  Symbolically, on Ash Wednesday, we put the cross back, in ash this time as we recognise our failure, but the cross nevertheless.’ (Michael Perham, The Sorrowful Way, SPCK, 1998, p. 44).

May we recall our baptism in Christ as we journey with Him through these forty days.



Story Published: 2nd of March - 2017

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