Ash Wednesday 2015 ~ The 3Rs of Lent
Let me give you a quick roundup of the last week or so:
Sky TV paid £5.136bn for football rights.
Islamic State beheaded 21 Coptic Christians.
The Bishops of the Church of England upset the government by talking about politics and welfare again.
The film ‘50 shades of Grey’ became a huge box office success on its first day.
A lorry driven by a 19 year old went out of control going down a hill in Bath, killing four people.
This is our world.
It is not black and white - indeed it has many more than 50 shades of grey. And I don’t mean the world, I mean our world. Although in many senses our world, your world and my world and someone else's world are never identical. But our worlds do overlap - sometimes there is a major event internationally which affects us all - which we will know about - and then on the other extreme there are our own individual, personal tragedies, events, issues, alongside successes and joys that we keep very much to ourselves.
We all lead complex emotional and spiritual lives. And no matter how empathetic or sympathetic we are, no one is ever in the same place as anyone else.
And yet as we begin Lent today we might think of it as both a personal and a corporate phenomenon. For here we are together entering into what is ultimately a very personal experience as we embark on the 40 days of self-discipline and renewal. We bring so much luggage with us: the affairs of the world; the affairs of our hearts; the affairs of our families, the affairs of our friends. So we are all here wrapped in our own spiritual and emotional worlds and we are here together to make shared expression of intention to honour and keep Lent.
And of course we keep Lent in various ways. We give things up, we take things on, we read, we pray, we give, we help, we try to do better. So in one sense I stand here and can have nothing to say to you because we are all, each of us, on our own Lenten journey, and only God can speak to us on that road. It is a private personal, individual, matter. For in Lenten discipline we are answerable only to ourselves and to God.
And yet... and yet...
There are common themes we might reflect on personally and corporately.
There are for example what I call the 3Rs of Lent.
And they apply nationally and internationally and individually.
So, rather than reading, writing and arithmetic - I propose regret, repentance and resolution.
These are three Lenten Rs.
And these three Rs might help us to navigate through the foggy shades of grey that immerse our world, and your world and my world in the dense mist of moral ambiguity which clouds our ability to see right and wrong and confuses us about what we should be sorry for and what we should try and do something about.
Indeed - that is where the first one comes in - regret.
There is so much to regret at every level - the personal and the worldly. We watch the news bulletins with a mixture of sorrow, anger and helplessness. Many have inured themselves to simply not notice, not care or not worry. Yet many others cannot do this: it does affect us, we do care and we do worry. And because we care about the world we regret for the world. We wish it could have been different and hope that it can be different. We sigh with regret. And it is a depth of regret that penetrates our very soul.
So it is that regret is what makes us sigh.
But it is repentance that makes us cry.
For when we realise and remember that all humanity is in everything together then we realise that regret is not enough and repentance must follow. As the poet and priest John Donne put it:
‘No man is an island entire of itself...
We are involved in humanity.’
The sins of the world are our sins. Which means there is also something fundamentally human in repenting of them. We lament and repent, for we regret what happens and we resolve to make things different.
So while regret makes us sigh, repentance makes us cry and that leads to resolution.
And resolution makes us try.
Try to do better, try to change, try to help. Resolution has two meanings which are connected and both are helpful here. For while we can resolve to do something - that is to try to make it happen - the very making of it happening can itself be a resolution - an ending as it were. Lent is a good time to try to resolve things. A time to put an end to some things. Or a time to resolve to do new things. A time that is, to make new out of old, or rather to change. But it is likely that such change - such resolution has to come out of repentance and regret.
So, we have the Lenten 3Rs:
Regret, Repentance and Resolution.
Regret is what makes us sigh.
Repentance is what makes us cry.
Resolution is what makes us try.
So, New Year’s resolutions aside, what do you resolve this Lent?
What will you try to do to wipe away the tears and salve the sighs of our broken world, obscured by fifty thousand shades of grey? And what would you do to excavate the regrets of your hearts to turn to repentance and clear the fog of your own soul?
For engaging with regret, repentance and resolution, turning away from sin and being faithful to Christ are the lynchpins of not only Lent, but of the whole Christian life. As we enter Lent – the season of preparation for the cross and the celebration of redemption and resurrection, a focus on this triple dimension of Christian living is particularly appropriate.
And as we receive the sign of the cross in ash on our foreheads, we might remember that while this is not a sacrament as such, it is an outward sign of an inner recognition of grace – a sign of our own ability to recognize and reflect upon our mortality and to tie that in to the regrets we feel, the repentance we owe and the resolution we need. So the ashing is a sign of our willingness to admit, own and confess our sins. And it is a recognition of our desire to remember that while we are but dust, and that to dust we shall return, it is our intention over the next forty days to turn away from sin, and be faithful to Christ.
And I promise you that if you resolve to repent in this way, you will not regret it.
So be it. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, Ash Wednesday 18/02/15