Homily for Ash Wednesday

Today, the ship of Lent sets sail and we climb on board.

Today, Mother Church, Mother Lent – wearing purple – comes towards us, and puts ashes on our forehead.

This is all God’s kindness. The ashes remind us we are dust, that life is short, and we will die. They’re a reality check. They’re meant to cure us of our illusions and return us to truth. And then they become a springboard. Our new luminous Cross begins with a skull, Adam’s skull, the skull of the one who was told after sin, “you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Above that skull and out of our dust, the figure of Christ rises. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). Lent is framed by two gestures: the marking of ash on our foreheads today and the kissing of the Cross, of Christ’s wounds, on Good Friday. The whole drama of human life is there. And if we look at this Cross, we see how Christ’s death opens out into Resurrection and the Resurrection into the Ascension. At the foot, a skull, dust, Ash Wednesday; at the top a flurry of angels, the hand of the Father beckoning the ascending Christ. So, the whole drama of human life is there, our whole journey in Christ: from dust to the friendship of angels, from return to the earth to a beckoning, lifting hand. And to carry us together from one to the other the Body of Christ: Jacob’s ladder, a chariot, a ship.

Lent is a time of grace. In the 2nd reading, St Paul quotes Isaiah 49:8, the Lord speaking: “In a time of favour I have answered you; on a day of salvation I have helped you”. These words evoke the God who led his people out of Exile in Babylon back to their land. God’s mercy leads us back to the truth of who we are and leads us on to the land of Easter, the body of the risen Christ. For us it’s a time for being heard, a day – 40 days – for being helped: heard and helped. In the 1st reading, the Prophet Joel says of God that “he is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent”. He is quoting Exodus 34:6, evoking the God who led his people out of slavery and even when they fell into idolatry – the story of the golden calf – did not destroy them. This may sound like heresy – though it isn’t – but in the Bible it is first of all God who repents, God who changes his mind, God who prefers mercy to judgment (e.g. Ex 32: 12, 14; Jer 18:8; Jl 2:13; Jonah 3:10). This is the inmost meaning of the Cross and Resurrection. And so now, in Lent, God first turns to us, and so enables us to turn back to him. God shows us mercy, and so we can show mercy. It’s easier to repent if God leads the way, if God spreads out his wings, opens up a great space for us to enter: a good land, Easterland, the land of the glorified Christ with its living space for us. The Hebrew word for “repent” also means to “comfort” (e.g. Is 66:13). When God repents he comforts. And we then learn to comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (cf. 2 Cor 1:4).

Mother Church, Lady Lent, makes so much available to us in this season. It’s a well-stocked ship we sail in. So many means for turning to the God who has turned to us. The Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Station Masses, the wealth of readings from Scripture, the memory of the Passion in the Way of the Cross, the chance to accompany those entering the Church at Easter, the opportunities to share in the charitable work of the Church (through SCIAF, for example). Means to grow in holiness, togetherness and mission. Let’s make use of these things! In monasteries, at the beginning of Lent, the Abbot would give each monk a book to read, or recommend a particular book of Scripture, to help him in his spiritual life. I’d recommend that. We can be abbots to ourselves. Lent is a time to hear the answers of God to the questions of our lives. A time to listen, read and reflect. God’s words are the manna for our way through the desert.

Let me end with the Gospel, three more means. When you give alms, says Jesus; when you pray; when you fast… These three practices of Jewish piety are endorsed by Christ himself. There’s a wholeness to them. To give alms means to be in right relations with others around us, a striving for social coherence. To pray means to seek right relations with God. To fast means to recalibrate our relationship with our body, with material things, and the world of nature. They are gestures that restore. And when Jesus mentions these things, he evokes his Father who sees in secret, and the reward, the blessing, he has for us. It’s the Land again, Easterland, Resurrection-land, the great free space that the risen Christ has opened through his wounds.

It’s there the ship is sailing. Today we embark, the ashes our boarding-pass. The sea is time, our time, our lives, our personalities, sometimes calm, sometimes wild. Our mast is the Cross. Our energy, the Holy Spirit. Our captain Christ. Our goal dust cherished, changed and glorified. Let us take to the waves!

St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 14 February 2024


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122