And so Lent begins, in it’s normal way, with Jesus being tempted in the wilderness for forty days – hence our forty days of fasting and abstinence. Although we ought to note, that those forty days don’t include Sundays. Sundays are always feast days. So whatever you have given up during the week, you are morally obliged to take it up on a Sunday.
So if anyone’s spouse has chosen celibacy for Lent… have a good evening.
But today I’d like to talk about the collect for Ash Wednesday. We use it every Sunday, indeed every day in Lent, and it’s in your service sheet.
Almighty God, you hate nothing that you have made, and forgive the sins of all who are truly penitent. Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our brokenness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness.
It’s a bit gloomy on the face of it. Lamenting sins, acknowledging brokenness, contrite, penitent. People complain it makes Christianity seem dour and not very life affirming.
Especially when you consider the alternatives these days. The Western World, despite claims, isn’t turning away from religion – it’s trying every and all religions, almost as though they’re trying to get a full set. In a bookshop, I saw books on Kaballah, Wiccan and Druidism, Bahai Janism, even Zoroastrianism. Not to mention the number of ‘spiritual” books which borrow from every tradition, often accompanied with ambitious claims. We should find the wisdom in all traditions – but so many of them are about making you better – wiser, healthier, more attractive, richer. With exotic mystical six-step plans to perfection and widening the soul.
Compared with all this exoticism, our contrite, broken and penitent faith sounds so, dull. How can we possibly compete?
Perhaps we should look back in history a bit. You see, our Ash Wednesday prayer has its roots in the early church. And that was a pantheistic place if ever there was one.
Katie and I were inRomeeight years ago to the day, on our honeymoon. I’d always wanted to go to Rome, being brought up a catholic, singing hymns like “I am a happy catholic” and “Full in the panting heart of Rome beneath the Apostle’s starlit dome” So we went to the dome itself, St Peter’s Basillica in the Vatican. It was the church which sparked the reformation – selling of indulgences to pay for it – and you can see why they needed the money. It’s vast, statues of popes thirty feet high. They melted down marble from the Coliseum (apparently you can do that) to line its walls. All this grandiosity seemed very far removed from a fisherman in Galilee like St Peter; or for that matter, a carpenter inNazareth. It must be difficult to feel humble, contrite, in such a place.
Near the Coliseum, denuded of its marble, there is church calledSan Clemente. It doesn’t have much to recommend it among the glories of the churches orRome, but go down the stairs, and you walk into an earlier fourth century church that the later church was literally built on top of. And down again, you can climb thirty feet and two thousand years below the surface of modernRome, into the original, first century house, upon which the church was built. That house belonged to a man called Titus Flavius Clemens, after whichSan Clemente, was named. He was a royal senator, related to the emperor. A Christian of the second century. Perhaps he even prayed our Ash Wednesday collect.
And our history books tell us he was one of the first Christians to be martyred – perhaps even in the Coliseum, where he would once have had a royal box, with his name carved in the marble – the same marble which now lines the walls of St Peter’s in Rome.
So if we want to know what our contrite, penitent little faith has to offer the exotic and distracted world of today, where people strive so hard for beauty and wealth and perfection, perhaps we should ask what Christianity offered him, who had the pick of all the Gods on offer?
It can’t have been power and influence – Clemens already had that, and Christianity had none, none at all.
It can’t have been exotic mysticism–Christianity wasn’t a mystery religion. There were loads of those around.
It can’t have been intellectual worth or social status – the church was neither posh nor clever.
If he’d have wanted those things, he could have gone to the Forum, the marketplace for Gods. You can still see their ruins today – temples stretching into the sky, solid, and strong, white and perfect, offering wealth and durability and beauty and in fact everything that people desired.
That’s what they were for. Then as now, they promised people what they desired. That was the deal. That was the reward for worship. Then as now, same principle. Buy my book, buy into my religion, and you will be a happier, better richer, more beautiful person.
What was attractive about Christianity to Clemens, the wise, the wealthy, the prosperous?
What Christianity offered then is what is offers now. Which is truth. Truth about ourselves, and truth about God.
And the truth is, we will never be perfect. That is not on offer. Only the love of a God who doesn’t require perfection.
You despise nothing you have made, and forgive the sins of all who are broken and penitent.
Christianity is not a call to be perfect. ,It’s not for the spotless, the glamorous, the whole and the healed. The church is not a repository for the perfect. It is a depository for the imperfect. Indeed it is often a suppository for those who think they are perfect! It may do us good but it’s uncomfortable at the time. Christianity is a religion for the imperfect, for the unimpressive and the impatient, the weak and boastful the insecure.
Christianity is not for the upstanding, it’s for those who fall down, and are bruised in the process. Ours is a losers’ religion. And its saviour is the loser in chief – the Christ crucified, a stumbling block to jews and foolishness to Gentiles. The banner that we proudly carry above our heads is the executed Christ. And perhaps Titus Flavius Clemens, saw something true and real, and honest, about himself, and about God. Perhaps he saw a God which didn’t offer easy solutions or pat remedies or witches brews, or a six-step plan for a deeper soul and a flatter stomach; something more true and real than perfect Gods, frozen in marble.
But look at those gods ofRomenow. Those who promised perfection. Look at theTemples, the colonnades, the palaces. They’re all gone, they’re ruins. Tower andTemplefall to dust. And somehow, Christianity survives.
After our honeymoon inRome, feeling a bit fed up of churches, we headed off to the Scottish countryside, to a tiny village called Fortingal, to see a Yew Tree. The tree is possibly the oldest living thing inEurope, thousands of years old. Certainly it was an old tree, when the events concerning Jesus in the Gospels were taking place.
Unlike the massive structures ofRome, the churches and theTemplesbuilt to show their might and power, it looked feeble, vulnerable. And yet they are gone, and the Yew Tree still lives.
Our faith, so exemplified in this small, humble little collect, our broken, contrite, faith, is more like the yew tree than the temple. It’s not impressive, not exotic. But its roots go deep, and it’s truth goes deep. And it grows, year by year, soul by soul, it grows.
Our little Ash Wednesday collect may sound dour to those who find the truth of our imperfection to be depressing, but it shows us a truth which will set us free. It shows us the truth of who we are, and it shows us a god who loves us as we are. And in that truth, is the glorious liberty of the children of God.