We sing along/listen to:
The readings and prayers can be found here:
We sing along/listen to:
The Lord says, ‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you. See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!’
Twelve months ago we could not have imagined. We could not have imagined how the age-old, explicit message of the scriptures would apply to our lives: ‘remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return’.
As we stand here today, well over 100,000 people have died as a result of the pandemic in this country alone. Globally, that figure stands at over 1 million. It’s a sobering thought, and one that we cannot escape, as the number of deaths are reported each day in the news.
We have become used to such news in these times. And yet, have we understood what it means for us? We might think about deaths, but have we thought about death? That is death itself? Our own deaths? There is a taboo in this country, death, is the elephant in the room. We prefer to couch the language of death: ‘she’s passed away’, or as you see so often online and hear at funerals: ‘he’s gained his angel wings’. As a nation, and as a people, and even Christian people, we seem to be unable to say: ‘he has died’, ‘she has died’, ‘they have died’.
Today, Ash Wednesday, reminds us concretely, and reminds us personally, that you will die. It reminds me, that I will die. It reminds me that those I love will die. Yours will die too. We will all die. That’s the purpose of the ashing: that we will all be dust and ashes. Lent urges us to face the reality from which we would rather shrink. It’s not cosy, it’s not popular, but it is, nevertheless, a fact. We will die, and whilst death is, for those who are left, so often a tragedy, we are not immune, no matter how hard we try to avoid it.
What then are we to do? How are we to respond to the elephant in the room, how are we to respond to the prospect of death, when it is all around us, and yet, at the same time, can seem far away in the distance? In other words, how are we to prepare for death?
We called quite simply, to make the language of the Psalm our constant prayer: ‘have mercy on me, O God, and cleanse me from my sin’. And in so doing we are focussing not on ourselves or our own trials, but rather on God’s life – the life which we are called to share, the life which surpasses our death.
And whilst that sounds simple, and in its essence it is, we live in a culture and a time when everything is focussed on our works, our achievements, our standing and what we can do to change the situation. In reality, we know that we can do nothing to change the certainty of death, we cannot stop it, but we can prepare for it by imploring God’s mercy.
The scriptures set for today paint an intimate portrait of God, a God of infinite mercy, a God who gives newness of life. Not a God who desires the death of his people, but a God who rejoices to bring life.
Ash Wednesday is not about our works, our efforts or our piety: it is about Gods mercy. God’s mercy is not dependent on us, or what we do, quite the opposite, God’s mercy is centred on him, and what he has done.
The Psalmist recognises that we do not deserve God’s mercy saying: ‘I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb’, and yet he implores him nonetheless ‘deliver me from death O God’.
We cannot justify ourselves and our actions that he might give us his mercy, there is no amount of piety that ‘blots out…offences’ there is no amount of praying on street corners that can change our fate, there is no amount of charitable giving for all to see that will make us deserving, there is no amount of obvious fasting that cancels the debt of sin.
As Jesus says in the gospel, there will be ‘no rewards’ for such theatrics. Jesus tells us to do the opposite, to do these things privately: pray for God’s mercy privately, and you will be ‘rewarded’, you will be rewarded with the reconciliation it brings. Given freely because of the righteousness of his Son.
He is the ‘one who knew no sin, so that in him, we might become the righteousness of God’, as we heard in our second reading. We can experience God’s mercy, his eternal life now and after our death due to his ‘steadfast love’ which we must receive with humility and grace.
This is how we prepare for death, not by doing, but by trusting in his ‘graciousness’: ‘have mercy on me, O God, and cleanse me from my sin’.
We are called to focus our lives on richness of God’s mercy – for it is by his mercy, and his mercy alone that we are saved. As we begin this holy season of Lent, make a start on it now, do not delay, for if we delay, we will be unprepared for the moment. Refocus your lives now, not on your works, but on his mercy, for as Saint Paul says: ‘now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation’.
May we all pray:
‘Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness… deliver me from death O God, [the] God of my salvation’. Amen.
We sing along/listen to: