The season of Lent begins today. I joined a fair number of others – more than the organisers expected – in a lunchtime service at Wellington Cathedral. Like them I received the sign of the cross in ash, and heard the traditional words
“Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”
A quiet reminder, that I’ve worn through the rest of the day, of my mortality, my sin, and the hope we have in Christ, very God and yet who went to the cross for us.
It is striking how our culture has changed. On the one hand, when I was young no one in New Zealand Baptist circles would have marked Ash Wednesday, or Lent at all. And now, 50 years on, a wider circle of Christians do (there was an interdenominational service here in my local suburb this evening) and yet Christian practice is now so near-invisible in the world around us – very secular New Zealand – that Ash Wednesday commands no media attention. Banks – thankfully – don’t compete to decorate their ATMs to mark the day. And if Shrove Tuesday perhaps gets a little attention – Mardi Gras abroad, a half-remembered pancake tradition perhaps – yet there is no consciousness or awareness that it foreshadows anything more than…..well, more pancakes. Perhaps it is still a little different in old European societies – the more Catholic of them in particular – but in the Anglo world Ash Wednesday falls well below the radar.
So much so that Parliament last night passed legislation repealing the blasphemy laws in New Zealand, and no one in the media seemed to so much be aware that this repeal takes effect on one of the more solemn days of the church year. I’m ambivalent about the repeal itself. Probably inevitable given the decline of theistic religion (especially Christianity in New Zealand) and yet those who champion the repeal seem to have no concept that any cohesive societies needs a set of common beliefs and taboos that hold them together. The decline of traditional religion doesn’t change that and like as not we’ve replaced formal (unused) blasphemy laws with rather more binding and oppressive rules around what modern verities can’t be challenged or dissented from in polite society, or by anyone who hopes to hold positions of leadership in our society. By secular law, one can take the name of God in vain, but it isn’t clear that one can be a leader and openly cast doubt on, say, homosexual sex or the like.
But it isn’t a day for political dispute and debate, but for a focus on our own sin, and our need for the promised grace – for a redeemer who takes the burden of our sin upon himself, the scapegoat as it were. Here is the collect for Ash Wednesday
Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing you have made
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts,
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1979 Book of Common Prayer
In slightly updated language it has been recited by tens of million over centuries. We walk the same path of penitence, and anticipation of grace and mercy, of those forerunners in the faith in the English-speaking world.
Perhaps I can end with a couple of much older penitential prayers
The house of my soul is narrow;
enlarge it that you may enter in.
It is ruinous, O repair it!
It displeases Your sight.
I confess it, I know.
But who shall cleanse it,
to whom shall I cry but to you?
Cleanse me from my secret faults, O Lord,
and spare Your servant from strange sins.
St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430)
O Lord and Master of my life,
give me not the spirit of laziness,
despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of sobriety,
humility, patience and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King,
grant me to see my own transgressions
and not to judge my brother,
for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen
St. Ephraim the Syrian (AD 305-373)
God’s grace, God’s hope, God’s renewal. As it as to Ephraim and Augustine, or to Cranmer, so to us today.
Thanks be to God.