Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Homily: Ash Wednesday: 2015

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent,

A much anticipated and frankly delightful feature of Ash Wednesday in this parish is the singing of Allegri’s Miserere.  Some might say that this incredible piece of music is too beautiful to be sung on Ash Wednesday, that it clashes with the penitential character of the liturgy. But they would be wrong. If you listen to this setting of Psalm 50, you will notice that it combines simple monophonic chant with soaring polyphony, a repeated simple melody with a complex harmony. This suits the liturgy perfectly because on Ash Wednesday the Church does not sing one long tedious dirge but two different melodies  blended into a magnificent harmony.

With utter realism today we are reminded: ‘dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return’. But this is not the first note which the Church sings to proclaim the beginning of Lent. It is rather the Introit of the Mass, which the Prayer Book echoes in the collect: “THOU hast mercy upon all, O Lord, and abhorrest nothing which thou hast made, and winkest at the sins of men.” This is the opening note of Lent, the rich melody which proclaims the mercy of God.

Of course we are dust. That is an indisputable fact. Dust and doubly so. Dust because we were formed from the dirt of the earth and to this dusty beginning we inevitably return. And dust because we have fallen to the ground from the height of Paradise. What we are is not what were created to be. All our ambitions, however silly, are all attempts to somehow  recapture what we have lost. We all sense that we were made for something better than what we now have. We miss the good old days, when man and woman walked with God in the garden in the cool of the day, the days before was began to listen to talking snakes.

Every sin repeats the primal sin in which man rebelled against God's love. We remember not only the impatience, anger, indifference, hardness of heart, disobedience of the past week, but the source of all that, when God first spoke those words: thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt thou shalt return. But we have to remember the whole story: how the very moment we rebelled and lost it all God immediately set about restoring us: how God said to the serpent:  "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The first proclamation of the Gospel of mercy. The old Adam and Eve pointing us at once forward toward the new Adam suspended from the Cross and the New Eve standing in the shadows of that Cross.

The old Gospel for Quinquagesima, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, alas lost in the modern lectionaiy, was the story of the blind man whose one request was “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Our need is to see ourselves but to do that we have to turn humbly and courageously to the light of Jesus Christ. For only then can we see more than just what we want to see. Lent calls us first to begin by looking away from ourselves in order that we may see ourselves as we are, as He knows us to be. Paradoxically we can never see ourselves completely unless we see first the divine mercy.

What is more we cannot and do not do this by ourselves. We come to Lent in union with the whole Church, and not just the Church, but with the whole human race, with all the banished children of Eve. We have to realize that we are part of the crowd. Not as the Pharisee, who thanks God he is not like other men. But like  the Publican who is content to see himself not as the exception to the rule, but like everyone else, subject to disobedience and rebellion, but also therefore subject to God's mercy which not only created us but redeems us.

It is admittedly a bit tricky to sing in perfect harmony. We will either dismiss our sins or dismiss God’s mercy. In  Pacal's words: to know God and yet know nothing of our wretched state is to breed pride; to realize our misery and know nothing of God brings despair." We are flat or sharp. We miss our ques. We come in at the wrong time. But tone deaf as we may be we are all in this merciful season members of the choir and sing the psalm: "All the paths of the LORD are mercy and truth".

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent,

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