Last night, to mark the beginning of Lent, Catholics, Anglicans and people of other Christian denominations gathered at the Christchurch Anglican Transitional Cathedral to mark Ash Wednesday with the distribution of ashes.
Catholic Bishop of Christchurch Paul Martin SM was the preacher. Take a few minutes to listen to his homily at the link below. The complete text of his homily is also printed below.
In our shared Anglican and Catholic tradition of faith those who teach us about living in relationship with Jesus Christ speak about the life of the heart, and our shared season of Lent gives us pause to consider the health of our individual and communal hearts. Lent brings us back to the heart.
Scripture speaks sometimes of the soul or the spirit, but most often of the heart (more than a thousand times). According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, then our words of prayer are empty. Lent leads us to God.
The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden centre, beyond the grasp of our reason and protected from the influence of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because we humans are created to live in relationship, relationship with God which enables healthy relationship with one another. Lent leads us into relationship.
So when we pray, whether we are in church, the home or workplace, in a crowd or in the solitude of our room with the door closed, we are making the journey to the secret sanctuary of our heart where we are most ourselves. Note that this is not always a comfortable or comforting experience since the heart is a place of reality and our reality is often not what we might want or like. Lent leads us to reality.
The world in which we live often threatens to lead us away from the life of the heart to what is less real, focussing on what is external and superficial. But our Christ-centred perspective reminds this we can grow and thrive in this “outer” world only when we are at peace with ourselves and with God in the depth of our heart. The world might offer us comfort, but we are not made for comfort. Instead we are created to live life abundantly with God now and for eternity. Lent challenges us to live abundantly.
Our friend C.S. Lewis suggests a key for this growth in his sermon The Weight of Glory: Lewis says “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Lent leads us to desire deeply and to think big.
Too easily pleased? Can this be true, that all the advertised temptations of the world are leading us up a garden path to barren earth where little grows, a winter garden? It’s helpful for us to remember that the word Lent comes from the Old English word meaning “spring-time.” For Christians marking Ash Wednesday in the northern hemisphere the signs of spring are very evident this month, but for us in the south as Lent begins, the mornings are cooler and the nights longer with winter around the corner. But let’s remember that Lent is a spring-time, a season of growth new life, birth and hope. This is what we are being offered in Lent: Forty day of growth. Lent entices us to grow and to mature.
Perhaps our past experience of Lent is marked by giving up things we enjoy with the understanding that six weeks of self-denial and even mortification once a year is good for us! But if we focus on this, we are missing the point. If Lent is to be for us individually and for the Christian church, a season of growth, we must be truly radical, getting to the root, the heart of our faith, that is, relationship with Jesus Christ. And at the same time we must be truly conservative, conserving the beauty of our Christian life, faith, rites and tradition. This is not a balancing act of weighing up doctrine against pastoral attentiveness but a healthy receiving from the wisdom of our ancestors helping us to live in the reality of the present challenging circumstances. Lent is a spring-time of faith tangible and visible here in our twenty-first century city.
Pope Francis reminds us of the pathway to growth. In January at the World Youth Day in Panama: He spoke to them saying: “Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed, of rules to be followed, or of prohibitions. Seen that way it puts us off. Christianity is a person who loved me immensely and who asks for my love. Christianity is Christ.” Lent is a pathway to lived relationship with Christ.
And it is Christ who brings us together tonight, Anglican and Catholic with friends, to focus again on what is essential. We are united by the challenges we face here in this place. We are at a spring-time of faith in our dioceses, with citizens hungry for mature and adult faith. Perhaps earthquakes have given us an opportunity that has not existed since our Christian ancestors arrived in this land. Lent give an opportunity to think and plan and build and rebuild with re-born minds and hearts. Lent calls us to new vision.
Let us, friends in faith, filled with renewed hope, now embrace forty days of growth together in relationship with Jesus Christ who is present and active among us.