This is the text of the sermon I preached on 14 February 2018 (Ash Wednesday) in the Chapel of King’s College London.
Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2018
Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Roses are red, ashes are black… No, it’s never going to catch on. Let me try again: Roses are red, Violets are blue, Lent is beginning, No chocolate for you… What a day on which to give up chocolate! St Valentine will be turning in his martyr’s grave, wherever it is. (His remains are scattered between Rome, Madrid, Dublin and Glasgow, to name just a few of his resting places.) The day defined by chocolate, flowers and passion-filled indulgence is completely at odds, it seems, with the day when many Christians commit to abstaining from at least some of the things they really enjoy. It’s as if we’re coming face to face today with a culture clash: indulgence v. self-denial, love v. sorrow, passion v. penitence, life v. death.
It’s not the first time St Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday have coincided. The last time was in 1945, just over six months before the end of the Second World War. But 14 February 1945 was more about ash than it was about love, at least in Dresden: the night before – the night of Shrove Tuesday – 800 RAF Bomber Command planes dropped almost 1500 tons of high-explosive bombs and nearly 1200 tons of incendiaries on the city. Dresden – or what was left of it – awoke on the morning of St Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday to find that more than 25,000 people had been killed, and many of its buildings reduced to dust and ashes.
Today, as on 14 February 1945, we begin Lent in repentance, acknowledging the things we do that hurt ourselves and others, confessing our complicity in continued injustices, taking responsibility for the suffering that comes from our abuse of the gift of our freedom, and accepting our part in the destructiveness that threatens humanity itself and turns life to dust and ashes.
Or rather, returns life to dust and ashes.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Saying these words – echoing God’s words to Adam in Genesis (3:19) – the Chaplains will in a little while make the sign of the cross in ash on the foreheads of those who wish to receive it. That sign is a reminder – as unfashionable as it might seem – that we are sinners, that we are mortal, that we are not in control, that one day we will die.
But that sign also affirms a different but complementary truth: that we are God’s beloved children and that, through Christ, God offers us the precious gift of eternal life. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we’re all part of the same, fertile dust of the ground into which God breathed life and which he sealed with his image (Genesis 2:7). The sign of the cross is a sign both of our repentance and of Christ’s boundless love for us, a sign that we have the self-giving God of the cross at the heart of our very being, a sign that God constantly reaches out to us, longing for us to return to him and experience transformation, healing and resurrection. The cross on our foreheads marks us as endlessly loved and forgiven by God in Christ.
Remember that you are dust – divine dust – and that you are a beloved child of God.
By being marked with the sign of the cross and reminded of our mortality, we are set free to live as the beloved children of God. Ash Wednesday isn’t a call to be morbid or piously miserable; it’s a call to accept our own mortality, to let go of all the illusions that we construct in an attempt to forget that we are mortal (and all the self-help courses we go on and face creams we apply); Ash Wednesday is an invitation to freedom, to witness to our faith in the God of life and flourishing by living life to the full and being wholly who we are called to be. Just as St Valentine did.
According to some accounts of his life, Valentine was a Roman priest who lived during the reign of Claudius II, who was Roman emperor from 268 to 270. Early in his reign, Claudius had difficulty getting men to sign up to his army because they didn’t want to leave their wives and families. So he banned engagements and weddings – but the priest Valentine defied this ban and married couples anyway. For this – and for trying to convert Claudius to Christianity – he was arrested and martyred on 14 February 269, beaten by clubs and beheaded in Rome. Valentine chose to live and love powerfully and courageously; he chose to make a difference to people’s lives, seeing in human love a reflection of God’s giving of himself to us. As a priest, his vocation was to help those in need and include those whom the authorities wanted to exclude. He sacrificed himself for the sake of love.
And, I suggest, that’s our vocation too. People often make – or pledge to make – personal sacrifices during Lent: we give up pleasures (such as chocolate) or habits (such as Facebook) for the sake of drawing ourselves closer to God. But such personal sacrifices are only part of the story of Lent. As members of the body of Christ, all born of the same dust of the ground, let’s think about engaging in Lenten disciplines that are both individual and communal, bringing us closer to God and working for the good of the world that God so loves – for we cannot love God without loving our neighbour as ourselves. Lent isn’t a private spiritual detox or an individual struggle for personal holiness, nor is it for show, as today’s Gospel tells us quite bluntly: ‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 6:1). Rather, Lent is a journey of deepening relationships – with Christ, with one another and with our world. Ash Wednesday challenges us to witness to our faith through how we live and love, to be more alive to Christ, to his people and to the world for which he died. We receive ashes upon our foreheads to remember both the gift of the Holy Cross and the gift we are to be for others.
Remember that you are dust, and that you are called through grace into an ever more loving relationship with Christ and with the world he came to save.
At the beginning of Lent, then, let us think boldly about how we can live out our faith in the world, about how we can better serve God and one another. What might that look like? Might we, like St Valentine, have the courage to choose to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of love? Might we, instead of giving up chocolate or Facebook for Lent, choose to fast from indifference to human need, suffering, injustice and cruelty? Might we choose to embrace justice, to show solidarity with those whom our culture considers to be unwelcome outsiders in our midst, to care for the poor, the helpless, the most vulnerable? Might we be able to ensure that our churches truly are welcoming houses of prayer for all peoples?
Isaiah gives us some pointers for what living out our faith in the world could look like. ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free?’ (Isaiah 58:6). Isaiah shows us that God isn’t particularly interested in whether or not we’re religious in a formal, sackcloth-and-ashes kind of way; what matters to God is whether or not we’re fully alive and committed to taking care of the oppressed and helping to provide food for those who are hungry, roofs for those who are homeless, clothes for those who are naked – for it is by doing these things that ‘[our] light shall break forth like the dawn, and [our] healing shall spring up quickly’ (Isaiah 58:8). This release of people who suffer is key to the very nature of God as seen in the person and mission of Jesus Christ; it should be the hallmark of the body of Christ in the world today.
Remember that you are dust, that you are created in the image of God – and that you are created to share in his work of release and redemption.
So, there is, after all, no jarring clash between Ash Wednesday and St Valentine’s Day. For both, I’d say, are about life and love. On this Ash Wednesday, then, let me wish you a blessed feast of St Valentine and a holy, loving and life-giving Lent. And let’s look forward to 2024 – the next time Ash Wednesday and St Valentine’s Day will coincide – by which time, with God’s help, we as the body of Christ will have become ‘the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in’ (Isaiah 58:12).