Ash Wednesday this year coincides with St David’s Day. St David is a figure of significance for me having grown up and been ordained in the Church in Wales. Like many of the Celtic saints, St David was an ascetic who founded monastic communities and encouraged a high degree of self-denial in the belief that it was all too easy to escape the challenge of the Gospel by surrounding oneself with the possessions and obsessions of the world. He was a leading critic of the British monk Pelagius who taught that salvation was partly earned through faithful action rather than being pure gift from a loving God. Faithful action is a response to the free gift on offer and plays no part in “achieving” freedom from sin and life with God.
It is tempting to believe that the value of adopting a Lenten discipline is the gaining of some spiritual reward with the potential for self-delusory pride and sense of personal success. The traditional approach to “giving something up”, often fairly trivial, only emphasises this point. So how might we approach this enigmatic period of the Church’s year? Is there any value to be gained by taking this next six weeks seriously and entering into some degree of “fasting, discipline and study”? Just as St David advocated a flight from the world to discover one’s need of God, perhaps Lent can enable us to ponder our own need of God. In the Gospel set for Sexagesima (BCP – Luke 18:31-43) Jesus predicts the events of his passion as he sets out on the final leg of his journey to Jerusalem. His disciples do not understand; it takes the blind man on the side of the road to recognise in Jesus the saving presence of God as he pleads for his sight to be restored. He knew his need of God; spiritually his sight was as clear as it could ever be.
Lent offers the opportunity to clear the clutter of a cacophonous world and concentrate on our need for God. When Jesus challenges the rich young man to sell is his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor declaring that it is easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of needle than to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:17:31; Luke 18:18-30) he is not condemning wealth but reminding us how possessions can cloud our vision. Wealth is morally neutral; the effect we allow it to have on our view of life is not. The American photo-journalist Chris Arnade, an occasional contributor to The Guardian, makes a similar point in a powerful manner, “Sarah, 15 years on the streets, wears a cross around her neck. Always. Michael, 30 years on the streets, carries a rosary in his pocket. Always. In any crack house, in the darkest buildings empty of all other furnishings, a worn Bible can be found laying flat amongst needles, caps, lighters, and crack pipes…………We are all sinners. On the streets the addicts, with their daily battles and proximity to death, have come to understand this viscerally. Many successful people don’t. Their sense of entitlement and emotional distance has numbed their understanding of our fallibility.” (The Guardian, 24 December 2013)
Whatever disciplines and devotions we adopt this Lent, it remains important that they do not become some kind of “spiritual work-out” the equivalent of a trip to the gym about which we can feel mildly self-satisfied but a genuine response to God’s love which assures us of our worth and value whatever and whoever we are. Such a response should celebrate our underlying unity with every other human being and indeed of the innate value of every other human being – itself a potentially counter-cultural insight in the modern world. St Paul writes “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2) It was that vision which lay behind the rigours of Celtic monasticism and which ideally should inspire us to respond with intent during this most holy season in preparation for the deep joy of Easter.
With every Blessing