Ash Wednesday 2021 – St George’s Cathedral, Southwark

Dear friends

The Holy Season of Lent begins today. It’s a time for renewal in our Christian living, an invitation, an opportunity, to follow the Lord Jesus more closely, more intensely, more devotedly, and more generously. In St Paul’s words, we – you and I – are to be ambassadors for Christ. We are His representatives, at one with Christ as agents of God’s goodness. A good question to ask each day of Lent is how, today, will I make God’s goodness known? In my life, in my relationships, in my home, in my work, to the stranger and to the friend, how am I an ambassador for Christ, making God’s goodness known.

The Scriptures remind us that we must change for the better, and change often if we seek perfection. But this change can only be made from the inside out. Our prayerfulness, our self-denial, our acts of charity, must all begin in our heart, what the Bible understands to be the deepest truth of who we are.

When the Prophet Joel invited the People of Israel to ‘come back’ to the Lord, this wasn’t with outward acts of surrender, like tearing their clothes in repentance. No. They were to make an interior journey to the Lord, a journey that would then be the source of their exterior living. We return to the Lord with broken hearts, with sorrow at the core of our being, desiring to open our fractured inner self to the Lord’s mercy and healing.

Lent, my brothers and sisters, is a time for conversion; for conversion of heart which shapes our conversion of life. Lent stops us in our tracks. In whatever ways we have walked away from the Lord and the pathways of faith, Lent summons us to change course and to draw close to Christ. This is what Christian conversion means, and it happens not just once, but over and over again.

Our Lenten conversion doesn’t demand a great outward show. In fact, the very opposite. Lenten conversion means changing our heart, changing how we think and changing how we act. It means choosing to live more for Christ, knowing His love so as to share His love, through acts of praying, fasting and giving to those in need. What the Lord Jesus seems to be saying in the Gospel is this: don’t make a great fuss; it’s enough that your Heavenly Father sees and knows all that is done in secret. 

Perhaps like me, you have a little demon on your shoulder whispering into your ear: ‘Come on,’ he says, ‘life is tough enough at the moment. It’s been a terrible year. There have been so many deprivations and restrictions; don’t take Lent so seriously.’ It’s true, it has been a terrible twelve months. For some people it has been, and remains, a time of great suffering and trial. Everyone has been effected in some way by the pandemic. But here’s the truth: the point of Lent is not to make life worse; the point of Lent is to help us remember what makes life worthwhile.

As disciples of the Lord Jesus we need encouragement to take prayer more seriously, to read the Scriptures more devoutly, to reflect on how we unite our heart to the heart of Christ, in loving friendship. As disciples of the Lord Jesus, we need to take stock of our priorities, to let go of our excesses and live more simply the example of Christ. As disciples of the Lord Jesus, we need to ask: what are we really doing for the weakest and the poorest? How do we see in every person the face of Christ?

Dear friends, Lent is not meant to be an insurmountable battleground. Lent is a favourable time to review our life with renewed faith and trust; to make a conscious effort to address our failures and sins, and to seek reconciliation; to live with joy the beautiful truth that through baptism we belong to Christ. Through Him, and with Him, and in Him, we die and rise each day, until, one day, we will rise forever. Maybe this Lent in particular needs to be a Lent of the heart, a schooling in living more lovingly towards God, towards our neighbour, and towards ourselves.

Unlike previous Ash Wednesdays, we will receive the ashes today by having them sprinkled onto the crown of our head. Our usual custom is to receive the ashes in the form of a cross, on our forehead. But this year, conscious of Covid safety, we use this act of sprinkling. In actual fact it’s a traditional practice, followed normally in other countries, and, not least, in Rome where the Holy Father always receives the ashes in this way.

The ash which we will bless is both a sign of our mortality and a mark of our repentance and renewal: ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return; Repent, and believe the Good News.’ This act of sprinkling caused me to reflect. The main kind sprinkling I encounter is in cooking, when I might sprinkle seasoning or herbs onto food. Lent is the time to be seasoned and flavoured again in the life of faith. As you receive the ashes today, sprinkled onto your head here in the Cathedral, or by desire at home, what particular grace, what gift do you desire to receive from God to season and flavour your Lenten journey? Or to put it another way, what help do you need to request from your heart, so that you can return to the Lord, in love of Him and of each other?

Come back to me with all your heart; repent and believe the Good News.