Homily for Ash Wednesday

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Those of us familiar with the Lord of the Rings will remember a scene near the beginning. Frodo is in his hobbit hole in the Shire, that good, green, wholesome, peaceful place, when Gandalf comes to visit him. Gandalf summons Frodo to leave this happy, green and peaceful place and venture on a perilous journey into enemy territory (to destroy the Ring of Power). Evil is on the march, the Enemy is moving, war is brewing and even the Shire will no longer be safe. Frodo must leave his comfort and join the action. He must go to war. He has a part to play.

We can link this summons with today and Gandalf with Christ. “‘And now, said the wizard, turning back to Frodo, ‘the decision lies with you. But I will always help you.’” Surely this resonates with Lent. “Now, now – it is the Lord who speaks – come back to me with all your heart.” “Now is the favourable time, says St Paul; this is the day of salvation.” The decision lies with us. The Lenten Word is calling us to leave our comforts: “Let the bridegroom leave his bedroom and the bride her alcove. Between vestibule and altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, lament.” The Word calls us to take up our God-given responsibilities towards ourselves and others. We’re summoned to battle, to go out and fight, to defend the good green place of our Christian humanity against everything that threatens and diminishes it. “Grant, O Lord, we pray, that we may begin with holy fasting the campaign of Christian service and take up battle against spiritual evils…armed with weapons of self-restraint” – so goes today’s Collect. It’s not a fight against others or a fight to get our own way or win every argument. It’s a campaign of Christian service, says the Prayer. It’s a war against worldliness, against a “worldly mentality that …leaves us dull and mediocre…against our human weaknesses and proclivities (be they laziness, lust, envy, jealousy or any others). It’s a constant struggle against the devil, the prince of evil.” This is Pope Francis (Gaudete et Exsultate, 159). It’s all in view of reconciIiation, says St Paul. It’s fought with the weapons Jesus hands us in the Gospel: generosity to others (almsgiving), connection to God (prayer), self-restraint (fasting), every dimension of ourselves re-consecrated. “For this spiritual combat, to quote Pope Francis again, we can count on the powerful weapons that the Lord has given us: faith-filled prayer, meditation on the word of God, the celebration of Mass, Eucharistic adoration, sacramental Reconciliation, works of charity, community life, missionary outreach” (GEE, 162). Each of us can ask ourselves: what weapons will I take up these forty days?

“‘And now, said the wizard, turning back to Frodo, ‘the decision lies with you. But I will always help you.’” “I will always help you,” says our true Wizard, Jesus, who can work his wizardry of healing grace even on us and leads us in the fight. “Who knows if he will not turn again, will not relent, will not leave a blessing as he passes?” asks the prophet Joel. Do we know the answer? Every Lent, God “relents”. He “turns”. On the Cross, it has been said, God “turns” against himself and gives himself to raise us up and save us (cf. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est 12); he “turns again”, mercy overturning justice. In Lent and Holy Week, the Triduum and Eastertide, the Lord “passes”. He keeps his Passover with us, the Paschal Mystery of his suffering and death, resurrection and ascension, and he “leaves a blessing” as he does. What blessing? The next time, I think, we hear the prophet Joel is at Pentecost, when St Peter quotes God speaking through him: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” The Holy Spirit is the Blessing left by Jesus as he passes to his Father. Ash Wednesday and Pentecost are the two poles of the great liturgical cycle beginning today. So, dust for Ash Wednesday and the breath of God for Pentecost, flesh and the Spirit. That’s what we are, how Adam is made.  And in the middle, Holy Week and Easter, Christ himself who took on our dust to give us the Spirit. This is the truth and beauty of ourselves that Lent and Easter give us back, our good, green, God-filled humanity, our Shiredom.

“I am not made for perilous quests’, Frodo says. “ ‘But you have been chosen’”, Gandalf answers, ‘and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have….And now the decision lies with you. But I will always help you.’ He laid his hand on Frodo’s shoulder. ‘I will help you bear this burden, as long as it is yours to bear.’”  Frodo and his friends, of course, do go, the evil Ring is destroyed in the Crack of Doom and the world is saved. “Who knows if he will not turn again, will not relent, will not leave a blessing as he passes?”

(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 26 February 2020)