Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
5 March 2014, 20:00 (ASH WEDNESDAY)We come together this evening invited by God, infinite love and ultimate reality. We are not here either doing our duty or individually doing God a good turn and so perhaps winning his favour.
On Ash Wednesday, love invites us to grow up and to grow into the power and mystery of the common life that is the Church, God’s family and people, the common life – and this takes us ever deeper into the reality of God himself.
As individuals we are not only unique but we are also fragmented and set in a partial reality. Which is more real: Rochester Cathedral, the Medway Jobcentre, a home in Syria, a tent in Lebanon, a street in Kiev or Sevastopol, a cancer ward or a South American favela?
Our own experience of reality is always relative and partial until it is lost in God and the whole.
Coming to worship together heightens the chance of our encounter with all that lies beyond our own horizons and limitations.
And this is the challenge of Lent: to discover, to change and to grow, to be owned and possessed by God and eternity rather than our appetites and self-regard.
And that’s why the wilderness is the place to start: for each and every one of us it is in some way demanding and challenging – an inhospitable and hostile environment where all our strengths and certitudes are threatened and perhaps annihilated.
So how do we enter the wilderness? In this homily I am going to suggest just one possibility.
Back in 2008 just before arriving here in Rochester, Ruth and I visited Tate Britain.
There in the Modern British Art collection we were struck by the number of school visits - with children sketching, cutting up paper and generally interacting with the paintings and sculptures.
One particular group struck me. They were sitting looking at a Francis Bacon portrait of a fellow artist, Isabel Rawsthorne.
Here are two copies for you to pass around and have a look at.
The painting is quite extraordinary.
Lots of people will probably find it repulsive and appalling because it does not accord to our classic and common norms of physical beauty.
I do not know what Isabel Rawsthorne looked like in 1966 when the portrait was painted, but I am pretty sure this would not qualify for the adjective ‘flattering’!
Indeed, the Tate provides a little commentary which runs:
This is one of the many paintings Bacon made of his friend,
the artist Isabel Rawsthorne.
He preferred to base such works on photographs of the subject
rather than work from life.
Intimate knowledge of the sitter was also essential.
‘What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance,
but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance’,
he said. (From the display caption May 2007)
So here the artist confesses that distortion is a part of understanding and reflection.
And to this end, the very laid back artistic-looking teacher of the 10 or 11 year children in the gallery handed out silvered card that provided and a soft and distorted reflection.
I did not have time to linger any longer and learn what the children might have been asked to do but surmised that this was a very challenging and creative exercise in seeing oneself reflected in a bendy bit of card and having an image to confront and to record.
It is this sort of exercise that I believe might enable us to enter the wilderness and encounter the actuality of God that lies beyond our comfort, our boundaries and our field of imagination and reason.
As we start our journey into Lent and Holy Week and Easter this year, perhaps we can learn something new and dynamic, refreshing and life-changing as we confront a new image of ourselves and God.
That is the promise and power of Lent - it isn’t just giving up chocolate, sugar or alcohol but allowing a different time, space, value and priority to gain the ascendancy in our lives.
The wilderness encroaches upon our security and identity to reveal something quite new and quite other.
Lent is more than just a wilderness period of 40 plus days but a powerful and life-enhancing opportunity to see ourselves and one another, this world and God himself, in a new light.
This new light is reflected but it comes from God and it brings an image which fills out and develops our understanding of truth and humanity, of love and God himself.
This is what Jesus did in the wilderness - and the temptations that he braved and overcame were those comforts, pleasures and allurements that lure us to stop looking at and reflecting the light and image of God.
Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent calls us to change, to repent and see afresh the world that God gives us and the ways in which he invites and indeed commands us to live.
The Bible is an extraordinarily radical and revolutionary collection of writings given to us by God who is utterly different from the little centre of my life and its point of view.
So it is that Jesus, teaching his disciples in today’s Gospel reading, ends with this unequivocal and devastating truth:
‘…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’
All of us know that the things of this world allure us and enthral us too much and Lent is the season to shed some of our dependence on things and abandon the certainties of self and allow ourselves to be rediscovered and re-claimed by God.
So what does Lent ask us to do as Christians?
The answer is to be prepared to change the direction of lives and allow God’s gravity to pull us in his love to himself.
It means repentance.
It means accepting that each and every one of us fails and gets it wrong and that we all desperately need God and his grace to restore us and set us free.
And just as we need this individually, so we also need it as a society.
Isaiah challenges Israel as a nation for its worship had become motivated by profit and pleasure. Similarly today we are part of the church and our nation and both need to recognise the ways in which we fall short in terms of God’s life and values.
We are not a collection of isolated individuals but a holy people, the family of God, and we have a crucial role to play in today’s world to bring in the values of the eternal into the shabby compromise of self interest and self gain.
We are failing to teach and lead and serve both young and old in the ways of God’s truth and beauty and love and joy.
So this Lent, I would you like to find a mirror that reflects something new and inspiring and challenging of God – it may be a book or a piece of music, 10 minutes of silence each day, a walk, just something that stretches and changes the familiar.
And please do this in conjunction with the words of life themselves in scripture. For example, take a psalm and make it yours for Lent and allow its amazing energy and truth reflect your life and your perception of God and one another in a new and extraordinary way.
This is the adventure of Lent: to allow God to distort our self-images into new and life-giving visions of truth and beauty.
Here is the new and risen life that transforms our everyday living.
The dust of our death touches us in the present moment as we are marked with ash and the cross.
But with God it brings eternal joy and everlasting life.
Whether I fly with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there;
Thy power and love, my love and trust,
Make one place ev’rywhere.
Artist Francis Bacon (1909‑1992)
Title Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Acquisition Purchased 1966