Sermon preached in the Church of All Saints, New Eltham
at Low Mass with Imposition of Ashes on 13th February 2013
“Ash on an old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where the story ended”
So writes T. S. Eliot in his poem, ‘Little Gidding’. I have a memory of my grandfather sitting in his armchair, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and the ash falling down onto the waistcoat of his blue, pin-stripe suit.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”
The starkness – even abruptness - of that sentence, which is said as ashes are smeared on us, cuts through the glamour and illusions of life. It’s meant to, and it presents us with a view of the reality of our human condition. An old man in his armchair or dust suspended above our foreheads. It tells a story. All is passing – the child seems to become the old man in a brief span of years and, from the dust of the earth out of which we are born, we return so very quickly. The boldness of those words shakes our comfortable lives. Remembering that we are dust is a call to return to an ancient wisdom that we are as much physical people as spiritual people. Spirituality and physicality are at root connected. It's a wisdom found in all religions. The ancient Hebrews knew this, and so, of course, did Jesus.
But it is, of course, only part of the picture, only half of the statement addressed to us as the black cross is smeared on our foreheads. The other part is equally simple and direct: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”
Stark again, but this time in terms of choice. Yet we would be misled if we were left thinking that the point of this statement is just to frighten us into becoming more religious. It is an invitation to bring order into chaotic lives, to seek the source of wholeness. To be faithful to God’s gentle and generous invitation to receive the gift of life.
Today we are invited to recognise the truth of who and what we are – of the earth. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, earth is the sacred seedbed of creativity and contains all the elements necessary for life. We need to realise, perhaps dimly, that to be fully alive requires us to be captured by a greater vision. The vision of the Risen Christ who appeared to his disciples and who enveloped them in the Divine Glory on the Mountain of the Transfiguration.
This tension – between a recognition of the truth and reality of who we are as human beings and the potential we have for glory, is, of course, played out throughout our lives but made more explicit now – and especially during Holy Week.
Our Faith recognises the need we have to face this tension and not to ignore it. Recently a friend of mine, a priest and psychotherapist, sent me the draft of a talk she was giving in Glastonbury on the subject of the Sacrament of Confession and the Therapeutic process. In it she wrote about her first experience of making her Confession:
“Early one Saturday morning”, she wrote, “I struggled into the church feeling unclear, confused and thoroughly miserable. I sat in the pew, the priest sat at the confessional. Not having a clue what I was going to say, except that I needed to own my own sins … I trusted and believed this would bring me back to myself and to God.
I started with the set format words… ‘Bless me, Mother, for I have sinned.’ And then the priest saying, ‘The Lord be in your heart on your lips, that you may rightly and truly confess your sins. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen’
I am kneeling in front of a crucifix; the priest is sitting next to me. We do not look at each other. I say, ‘I confess to almighty God, to blessed Mary, ever-virgin and all the saints and to you, Mother, that I have sinned in thought, word and deed, through my own deliberate fault.’
With her help I find the words. They feel bald, clear, naked and frightening. They are just me. I am speaking from myself. I am feeling shameful, fragile and vulnerable but gradually I also have a sense of Christ’s love for me. He loves me when I feel so dreadful: it is as if I have opened myself to Christ and God, and they are putting their healing hands right into me. The pain is going. I finish it off by saying, ‘For these and all my other sins which I cannot remember, I am truly sorry, firmly resolve to do better, and humbly ask pardon of God, and of you, Mother, penance, advice and absolution. Amen’
Then there is the moment of absolution. ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his church to absolve all who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you your offences; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the prayers of the blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints, whatsoever good you do or evil you endure, be to you the remission of sins, the increase of grace, and the reward of eternal life. Amen’
For a brief moment I am without sin. For me there is this unbelievable moment that I find myself truly knowing that I am without sin. I feel joyous I feel liberated from myself I have been reconciled once again with Christ and so with myself.”
So my friend wrote of her experience of her first Confession.
Too often we are caught in a cycle of self-concern that can prove debilitating and dangerous.
We are never sure if we’ve got it right. We are afraid to own ourselves, to admit to being the people we know we are. We can be ashamed and carry our burdens just because we fear that, if others knew about us, they wouldn’t like what they saw. Yet we long, somewhere deep in us, to be free. To be reconciled to the truth of who we are, with God and with the world around us. We glimpse the possibility of a life that can be lived to the full, with all our creative energies flowing. Yet fear holds us back. It’s then that we need to listen, deeply, to those words: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and turn to Christ.’
So may this Lent be a time to face the truth of who we are and know that God longs to set us free. Starting from embracing the reality of who and what we are – and that can be an immensely painful process – let us also realise a bit more of the glory that is ours as well. We may be only dust, but we’re dust destined for glory. The visible mark that will soon be traced on our foreheads echoes the invisible sign made at our Baptism and all that is promised by that Sacrament will be retold in Passiontide.
“Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where the story ended”
And new life began. Amen.