Words on the Word

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-18: Between vestibule and altar, let the priests lament.
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2: Be reconciled to God!
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18: Your Father sees all that is done in secret.

We all know what it is like to be in a noisy room where lots of voices speak at once, into and across one another. It may be a dining room during a party, a bar, the waiting room in a railway station. At first we hear only a monotonous, grinding, unpleasantly loud buzz. Then, little by little our ears acclimatise. We begin to be able to pick out individual voices. We may even keep a conversation going. If we do, we find that, by concentrating hard on the voice of the person we are speaking with, we can shut out competing voices. Suddenly the noise is no longer audible. We manage to tune into a single frequency. Thus what seemed at first (still is, in fact) an anonymous, even slightly hostile space becomes a space of personal, intimate encounter.

Our Christian experience of Lent corresponds to this kind of tuning in. When we speak of going out ‘into the desert’, that is what we mean. We endeavour to shut out noise; to focus on essentials; to hear whispered words of truth in the midst of myriad empty promises. What are these words? Our Ash Wednesday readings set them out: ‘return to me’, ‘rend your hearts’, ‘be reconciled to God’, ‘pray to your Father who is in secret’. These are enormous, defining words, words intended to structure our lives. They are categorically unlike words like ‘tax return’ or ‘the BBC’ or ‘special offer’. The trouble is, our lives can be so absorbed in the everyday that we effectively hear nothing but everyday words. We are prisoners of noise that variously excites, stresses, or exasperates us. Let us use this Lent to rise above it. Let us not be like people who have ears, yet do not hear. Let us listen out for the words that matter, that tell us who we are, who we should be.

In practice this involves taking time to be silent, to pray, to read God’s Word. It means going to confession, to sort out the mess within. It means withdrawing from distractions and useless stimuli, looking at how we use our time, how we eat and drink, how we relate to others. Do we live in such a way that each day affirms us in the ‘newness of life’ we profess to desire? Are we men and women of prayer, forbearance, sobriety, and effective charity? Lent is a time to take stock—and to make real changes to the way we live.

In a moment we shall receive the sign of ashes on our foreheads. Thereby we make a confession of humility. We proclaim that we are made of nothing, that nothingness is our natural end. I say, ‘natural’ end. This is essential. For we are more than our nature! We are dust and to dust we return, yes. But we need only look into our hearts to know we are more. Our longing for life, for love, for communion is what really defines us, much more so than our bodies with its passing pains and pleasures. We have a soul, and our soul lifts up our whole being in a yearning to live forever. That yearning corresponds to God’s call. On Ash Wednesday we are reminded of our Christian stature. We are transient creatures called to immortality, dust called to glory. May the forty days ahead bear out this confession in truth. By our renewed lives, may we be credible ambassadors for Christ. Who knows what the Lord asks of us this Lent? Who knows whom he would have us help, what task he would entrust to us, what grace he would give us?

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