Ash Wednesday 2017
Not long after he began working for the Black and Decker, the new Chief Executive called a meeting of his senior team. He lifted up a drill and started waving it around and asked, ‘What is the most important thing on which we have to focus? What is our main priority?’ ‘The drill, the drill,’ they all shouted. ‘No,’ he said. ‘The most important thing for us is not the drill but the hole in the wall. If the drill is not effective and efficient in achieving its goal in making the hole in the wall, then it’s no good at all. The drill is not our priority – it’s the hole in the wall.’
So too with us, as we begin Lent. What is the most important thing on which we have to focus? What is our priority? To use that last verse from the Gospel today, ‘Where is our treasure?’ It’s not prayer and penitence, as essential as prayer and penitence are. It’s not fasting and almsgiving giving, as important as they are. It’s not study and reflection, as important as they are. No, it’s none of these. The most important thing on which we have to focus is our passion for God, for God’s world and for life. Lent is a God-given opportunity to reconnect with God and to re-ignite our passion. The Lenten disciplines of prayer and penitence, of fasting and almsgiving, of study and reflection are important but they are a means of helping us achieving our goal of reigniting our passion for God, for God’s world and for life.
Why is passion so important? It’s important because our passion shows we are fully alive and open to Jesus Christ and when we are fully alive and open to Jesus then we reflect the glory of God. Irenaeus, a theologian in the early church, wrote, ‘The glory of God is a person who is fully alive.’ If we love, if we experience joy, if we suffer, if we laugh, if we cry, if we feel deeply, if we speak out against injustice then we can be sure that we are fully alive. All of these things happened to Jesus. We know he loved – that’s the very reason for his coming to us. We know that he experienced joy – he would have felt that when he saw people being changed by what he said. We know that he suffered – that’s what happened during this period of Lent and Holy Week. We can be pretty sure he would have laughed – probably at the many meals he had with his friends. He certainly cried – he did that when he heard of the death of his friend Lazarus. We know he felt deeply – his heart went out to the widow of Nain whose son had died. We know that he spoke out against injustice - this is what got him into so much hot water when he went against the conventional thinking and behaviour of the time. It’s not always easy to be people of passion and open to Jesus Christ – it led Jesus to the cross and we can be sure that the same will happen, in some way or other, to all of us. But, then, that’s our calling. So, what’s the alternative to passion?
Well, it’s apathy or numbness – and while apathy or numbness have always been around, they are particular temptations in today’s world. In our age of 24 hour media, we can be so overwhelmed by the suffering that comes from war and famine that we close our hearts to it – ‘It’s not our problem, it’s someone else’s.’ We can be so overwhelmed by the refugees from the Middle East, so concerned about how our stretching out to them will affect our life-style, that we close our minds. We can be so overtaken in by the rhetoric and climate of fear that we close our borders. We can be so concerned and worried about our relationships or our family that we bury our heads in the sand. Either we do this or we find various ways of numbing the pain, putting our dependence in unhealthy places: an over-dependence on alcohol, or drugs or social media or other escape mechanisms. We become apathetic. We lose our passion and, with it, our humanity.
Lent is an opportunity to start again. We can look at God, our world and ourselves afresh - and we can claim back our humanity. The root of the Greek word for ‘repentance’ means change of mind or change of attitude. Lent reminds us that we worship a God whose love is always available and whose forgiveness is always offered. God does not ebb and flow like the sea, but God is always there calling us into a deeper and fuller relationship with him. Lent is an opportunity to reconnect with God and reignite our passion. When we reconnect with God, we reconnect with life. The challenge of Lent is summed up by the very last verse of today’s Gospel: ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ Where is our treasure – what is of most value to us?
So 'enjoy' Lent. Use the opportunities it provides to the full but don’t take on too much – we are all works in progress, until, and maybe beyond, the day we die. We are all different and so we will can all gain different things from Lent. Be open to new possibilities. Be open to change and fresh directions.
I have been reflecting on some wider issues around Lent: I want to conclude with some words by Pope Francis with some helpful advice on the specific discipline of fasting:
Do you want to fast this Lent?
- Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
- Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
- Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
- Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
- Fast from worries and trust in God.
- Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
- Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
- Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
- Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
- Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
- Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.
Reading: Matthew 6. 1-6, 16-21
St. Andrew’s, Minehead 1st March,2017