Homily preached at St Andrew’s Methodist Church, Cardiff:
May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was about 10 years old, we had a probationer come to us as our Minister at Greenford Methodist Church in London who trained at Birmingham and who (like I came here to you!) came to us fresh out of college…I remember many things about her ministry and she made an immense impact on me and on my whole family actually. One of the things I remember most about her, was that she used to regularly take the young people of the church out bowling and also to the cinema…
One of the things we always used to go and see, rather controversially at the time, were the Harry Potter movies, which had just come out. My addiction for the Harry Potter films lies fully in the hands of Lucille, who took us religiously to see each new film as it came out and this became one of the highlights for our church family year!
My favourite characters in all the Harry Potter films were Dumbledore and funnily enough, not a human character but Dumbledore’s bird and constant companion – Fawkes, the Phoenix (named after Guy Fawkes!) (who never really got much of an outing unfortunately!)
What I loved about Fawkes was that the moment you saw his red and gold feathers, you knew something exciting and mysterious was going to happen…
Either when he sheds tears on Harry’s scars so that they can heal…or when he turns out of nowhere and whisks Dumbledore away to safety from Lord Voldemort and the magic police…or the time when he combusts and bursts into flame leaving behind a pile of ashes…! (just to name a few of his coolest moments!)
Now, I don’t know how good your knowledge of mythological animals is, but one thing about a phoenix is that they have what is called a “burning day’ when they turn into ashes, and each time they combust, a new life is born once again from that same pile of ash.
So out of ashes, what we might see as nothing but the detritus of destruction…can come new life, resurrection, eternal hope.
Many people yesterday would have been celebrating pancake day…we know that! Some more informed people will have been thinking about Shrove Tuesday and making their confession before the beginning of Lent which we are here to mark this evening. Shrove Tuesday, comes from that notion of being ‘shriven’…when we confess our sins and receive the cleansing release of knowing that we have been forgiven. Gearing ourselves up, orientating our lives and focusing our gaze toward what God wants us to see, and where God wants us to be.
But today, we meet on Ash Wednesday – to mark the start of Lent in a way which prepares us hopefully, for the 40 days ahead of us, as we journey with Our Lord, to Golgotha and eventually with Mary Magdalene to the empty tomb on Easter morning.
I’ve been rather lapse this year, and left it later than usual to sort out a Lent Book for myself and for others to follow, but I managed to get something just in time…this year I’m going to be using Malcolm Guite’s book ‘The Word in the Wilderness’ a Poem a day for Lent and Easter…I want to share with you, the poem Malcolm has written for Ash Wednesday:
‘Receive this cross of ash upon your brow
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross;
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands,
The very stones themselves would shout and sing,
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognize in Christ their lord and king.
He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.’ – Malcom Guite
Ashes have deep biblical resonances, in the Old Testament loose ashes on the top of the head were a sign of deep grief and mourning…the opposite to receiving the oil of gladness used in anointing. In the funeral liturgy, we hear those words which are so familiar ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’.
It’s not by chance that we begin this journey to the climax of the Christian year, by beginning with our own mortality…the stuff of human existence…the reminder, daunting and stark as it may be…that death is not an option for any of us. That like Our Lord, we must make that journey to the cross, and that like him, if we die with him, we shall rise to eternal life.
This evening as we receive the sign of the cross in ash on our foreheads we are reminded of how God can take the very worst we can do to Him and turns it into the very best he can do for us. That like Fawkes the Phoenix, we all have a share in the mystery of resurrection which has nothing to do with magic, or mythology or fairytale, but which for us, is life and fact and reality…for the savior whom we come to follow this Lent is one who lived, died and rose again from the bonds of death.
‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’
Those words which are used as people are marked with the sign of the cross, are there to give hope –
That we can all be Phoenix-like if we choose to be.
That the ashes are a sign of our repentance,
A symbol of our mortality, a reminder that by God’s grace alone we are given eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
St Matthew spoke to us those words of Christ ‘Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also’.
Sisters and Brothers, I don’t know about you, but too often, I am aware that my treasure is earthly treasure…things I have, places I like to be, people I like to see, things I like to do – those are the things which my life too often revolves around, which take up far too much of my time and which I am far too focused on.
Things, which can change, disappear, let us down, destroy us, capture us, control us…earthly treasures. And actually, we know that if we really think about it, those things, which we treat as treasure are not really treasures at all…
Not in comparison to the joy and glory and “perfect-ness” of life together when we are truly focused on heavenly treasures…lasting joys and deep satisfaction, which only God can give.
‘Where your treasure is, there you heart will be also’.
Lent is a time for us, to make our relationship with God in Jesus – the central treasure of our lives.
Lent is a time for us, to make sure that our hearts are in God’s hands, that they are raised up to God, offered to God and our lives lived in total obedience to his will for us.
That will involve sacrifice.
That will involve giving up things, and giving up time, and giving up what we think we treasure, but ultimately it will get us to that place where we can already feel ourselves rising from the ashes…
Changed from glory into glory.
Taking our place in heaven.
Storing up for ourselves and for the whole world, treasures which last, which are pure and good, which are life-giving and wholesome and true.
We are all dust, and to dust we shall all return, but Christ has led the way, through death to eternal life, and he will hold our hand and carry us through – if we but place our complete hope and trust in him…there is no better time to do this than now, no better way to start than this, no better place to begin our journey than here…with each other, with Christ, with God.
Every Eucharist recalls again those mind-blowing events of Advent, Good Friday and Easter, the undeniable proof that God never gives up on us. So let us make sure that our “giving up” (of whatever it may be) in response, is not just for Lent, but for life.
For made like Him, like him we rise, ours: the cross – the grave – the skies.
And it is holding on to that hope, and preparing us for that awesome reality, that Lent is all about.