Homily by The Rt. Revd. Graham Usher, The Lord Bishop of Norwich, Ash Wednesday 2020

Joel 2.12-18; 2 Corinthians 5.20-6.2; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18

I am delighted to be on pilgrimage to The Shrine with Bishop Norman today. Thank you for the warmth of your welcome.

There was a public footpath near where I grew up. The sign by the gate said “Beware of the bull”. Though no bull was ever seen, it kept most people out. As a 12 year old I delivered the York Advertiser around our village. ½ pence per copy, and I delivered 59 of them so I was paid 29 ½ pence in cash. Remember the half pence piece? I didn’t deliver the 60th because I was told not to. The previous paperboy had ignored the “Beware of the dog” sign. It still snarled at the gate waiting his successor. I was reminded of all of this when I visited Dudley Zoo and saw the sign. “Beware – do not climb, stand, sit or lean on the fences. The animals might eat you and that might make them sick”. And all of this came back to me as I read today’s Gospel. ‘Beware’ it screams.

And ‘beware’ we must. Entering Lent that word of warning is timely. I don’t know if my interior life is anything like yours but it can feel like I’m in need of a re-boot just like a computer that’s become slow and sluggish and freezing and not saving things properly.

Our journey into and out from God needs that Lenten re-boot. To be drawn back to that initial call in our lives, ‘Come, follow me’. We are invited to ‘return to the Lord’, to ‘rend our hearts and not our garments’, to be, in the words of 2 Corinthians, ‘reconciled’ to God. To do this you have to stop before you can turn. Ash Wednesday is the time to stop. Stop and breathe. Stop and think about who we are and the direction our life has been taking. It is time to press stop so that we can re-boot.

And when we gaze into the face of God we realise that he’s got no time for the masks we try to wear. The piety that we pretend so as to impress others, or, more dangerously, try to fool ourselves. Lent is a time to be stripped back of all our efforts with our own goodness, or our own rightness, or our own moral superiority.
Pious examples were all around Jesus. The son of God could spot them a mile off. Those who wore their good deeds on both their shoulders, making them very balanced individuals. Those who paraded how virtuous they were. Those who wouldn’t look on those they thought were sinners in the street and ended up bumped into walls and trees, priding themselves in their bruises and bleeding sores. Those so pious that they were so heavenly minded that they failed to give much earthly generosity. And haven’t we been there, too? When did we last parade our piety?

Helmut Thielicke, the German theologian of the 20th century asked, “Do we not all strut a bit upon a lighted stage and assume poses, because the good Lord and our neighbours and friends are sitting in the audience and we would like to have some applause and lots of flowers and handshakes?”
Mock piety makes me feel good whereas genuine piety always enables someone else to rejoice. False piety glorifies me whereas true piety always glorifies Christ.
So, Jesus has some tough things to say to us today. Beware of practising your piety in front of others for God knows what our spiritual life is really like and that’s all that really matters. Beware of giving in front of others and looking for your name on the donors’ board. You see, God knows how generous we really are, as do our wallets. Beware of praying in front of others. God knows how fulsome our prayers are. Beware when fasting of attracting the attention of others. God knows why we over-indulge and where we need to heal our unhappiness.

Jesus didn’t say ‘don’t fast,’ ‘don’t pray,’ ‘don’t give alms.’ No, not at all. He says, ‘when you …, when you give alms, when you pray, when you fast.’ Do these things and more, but don’t do them ostentatiously to impress others. Be quiet about them and you’ll find that something of the quietness of God will rub off on you.
Perhaps Jesus’ understanding of all of this came from his own experience in the humble, poor home of Nazareth where Mary pondered so much in her heart. Quietly, not ostentatiously, keeping a distance, but there with a sense of still, patient waiting. From young virgin to being at the foot of the cross her vistas were continually expanding.
Mary was the first to discover that the reward for being faithful is a life requiring greater faithfulness. The reward for being responsible in small ways is to be given responsibility in larger ways. The reward for loving is the capacity to love more, to understand more, to forgive more.

She who in her faithfulness, by her responsibility, and through her loving, saw her dreams raised, then the hopes in her heart pierced as the world became greyed out. In my mind’s eye on each Good Friday I see her blue garment, soaked in mud and blood from the foot of the cross, the only glimmer of colour in the ashen-coloured frame of that day. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Ash implies something destroyed, demolished, gone. Destroyed are the palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday. And across our foreheads ash will mark us out as turning away from sin, towards being seekers of Christ’s forgiveness in this sad-springtime of waiting. But ash will fall from the brazier as Peter is asked whether he knew him. Ash will be in the heart of the fire on the beach at breakfast time as the risen Jesus bakes bread and grills fish.

Lent is a time to spend time reviewing, possibly repairing, perhaps enlarging. Confessing and baking and grilling amidst the ash. It’s warning sign doesn’t in fact say ‘Beware’. It’s not about keeping people out; quite the opposite. Lent is time of invitation. It’s sign says ‘turn again’ and ‘be faithful to Christ’. That’s the message of Lent. It’s about opening ourselves to the gift that Christ longs to impart: newness of life and the joy of the gift of the resurrection life. Become ready, dear friends, to receive the new life that bursts from the tomb for the ash-ened places of the world, and for you and for me.