Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The ‘joy-making mourning’ and
‘bright sadness’ of Ash Wednesday

The Ladder of Divine Ascent … Saint John Klimakos writes of the ‘joy-making mourning’ and the ‘bright sadness’ of Lent

Patrick Comerford

Wednesday 1 March 2017,

Ash Wednesday,

8 p.m., Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick


Readings: Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51: 1-18; II Corinthians 5: 20b - 6: 10; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is a day that is often marked by the spiritual disciplines of fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance. And so, the Book of Common Prayer designates Ash Wednesday as a day of ‘special observance’ and a day of ‘discipline and self-denial.’

But for many in this culture, this is a day associated with long faces, the joyless giving up of some questionable pleasures – such as smoking – and of doing so in a way that sometimes amounts to self-indulgent penitence.

But, instead, this should really be the start of a time of preparation, a time to look forward to our real hope and joy. For the countdown has just begun – we are only 40 days from Easter.

I suppose Easter is in danger of losing all meaning in society today. Just like people readily sing Christmas carols even before Advent begins, I notice how people are now eating Cadbury’s crème eggs long before Lent begins – without ever thinking of the symbolism the egg once carried of the gravestone being rolled back on Easter morn and new life rising in joy.

But just as the whole point of Advent is looking forward with joyful anticipation to Christmas, so too should Lent be a time of looking forward with joyful anticipation to Easter.

And in so many ways that tone – that set of values or priorities – is captured by TS Eliot in his first long poem, ‘Ash Wednesday.’

This poem has been described as Eliot’s conversion poem. It was written to mark his conversion to Anglicanism 90 years ago, on 29 June 1927, although it was not published until 1930. In this poem, he answers the despair found in The Waste Land, and this is a poem that is less about penitence and more about repentance.

In ‘Ash Wednesday,’ Eliot deals with the struggles that arise when one who once lacked faith turns and strives to move towards God. In this poem, he writes about his hopes to move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation. And that is what Lent and the spiritual disciplines we associate with it are all about.

At this service, some are coming forward for ashes. Others are more reserved, bearing in mind, I imagine, those words of Christ in our Gospel reading this afternoon: ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting … But when you fast, put oil on your face and wash your face …’ (Matthew 6: 16-17).

And those words are not merely wise, but words that reprove those who would misrepresent the meaning of the Lenten fast. For I sometimes think that the misrepresentation and misinterpretation of Lent has, in turn, deprived many of its true meaning and significance.

Writing in the Guardian some years ago [2010], the Orthodox theologian Aaron Taylor wrote of how he hoped that the Lenten fast ‘must never become a source of pride on the one hand, or something oppressive on the other. It is a measuring stick for our individual practice … [it] is primarily about obedience, and thus humility. But it also creates a sense of need and sobriety. It teaches us to seek our consolation in things of the spirit rather than of the flesh.’

He pointed out that fasting ‘is merely a physical accompaniment to the real heart and joy of Lent: the prayer and worship that are intensified during this season …’ and he referred to the ‘joy-making mourning’ recommended by an early writer, Saint John Klimakos, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, to the ‘bright sadness’ of Lent.

At Lent, we should remind ourselves that we have all fallen short, so that we are not the people we should be. We all too easily focus on ourselves. But true Lenten fasting allows us to experience a sense of freedom as we relinquish our self-centredness and can produce joy in our hearts – just what TS Eliot experienced, just what we pray for in the Collect of Ash Wednesday.

And Aaron Taylor added: ‘If we do not to some extent attain to this joy-through-mourning, we have entirely missed the point of Lent.’

He concluded his ‘Face to Faith’ column in the Guardian by saying: ‘As long as there is evil in the world, we can be sure that some of it still lies hidden in our hearts. And as long as we are able to shed tears over our condition, there remains hope that we will one day see the glorious day of resurrection.’

And so, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Collect

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer

Almighty God,
you have given your only Son to be for us
both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life:
Give us grace
that we may always most thankfully receive
these his inestimable gifts,
and also daily endeavour ourselves
to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This sermon was shared during the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday, 1 March 2017, in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

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