Sermon for First Sunday of Lent – Litany in Procession and High Mass Sunday 22 February 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
The very first Ash Wednesday sermon I heard in England, in the old Cowley Fathers’ church on the Iffley Road in Oxford, began ‘I hate Lent’. The preacher was a priest who would later teach me New Testament, Fr Eric Franklin. He was a combative but also a compassionate priest who actually hated, above all things, cant and hypocrisy, so he found life in a theological college extremely difficult. Lent, he thought, promoted a view of Christianity which was about jam tomorrow, literally; trivialising the real sacrifices of poor people throughout the world by encouraging rich people – all of us – to think we were holier for leaving the sugar out of our tea for six weeks.
Lent is usually caricatured as a time of ‘giving things up’; even people who have no connection to the Christian faith speak, semi-seriously, of giving things up for Lent, just as they wish each other a merry Christmas or a happy Easter, or say that something they don’t like is ‘against their religion’. Giving things up is a good piece of spring-cleaning for our lives at this season, but the self-denial is supposed to be a positive good: at the most basic level, even giving up chocolate or wine should prompt us to almsgiving, to reckoning what we heedlessly spend on those things and giving the equivalent amount to alleviate the lives of those who live on less per month than we may spend on those items in a week or even in a day (which is most of the population of the world). As I believe Fr Ross used to say from this pulpit, Lent is about doing more: more generosity in every area of life, in both the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy, to use Aquinas’ terms. In short, almsgiving and prayer, including Mass attendance.
Today’s Gospel prompts the question why? What is this season about? In Mark’s lapidary version, directly after his baptism Jesus was led (or rather in Mark’s word, ‘thrown’ or ‘driven’) by the Spirit into the desert at the beginning of his mission ‘to be tempted by Satan’ – or, more accurately translating the original, to be ‘put to the test’ by him. Being put to the test in Greek is not necessarily a bad thing; it can mean being given the opportunity to prove oneself, one’s real self, which is what happens here.
Our readings this morning make a strong link with baptism: Noah and the flood in the first reading, explained by Peter in the second as a ‘type’ of baptism; then the temptation of Christ following immediately on his own baptism. However interesting and important those parallels are, they interpret history, salvation history certainly, in which we too participate through our baptism, but it is still about the past. So how do we live out that baptismal calling? What is Lent about for us this year, now?
The beginning of the season, as we recall our Lord’s retreat into desert, is most obviously a call to recollect ourselves before God, to try and remember who we are – something he does for us all the time, but we busily fail to do most of the time.
There’s a moment in Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George which illustrates this beautifully. The king is getting better after a serious episode of the illness which has made him behave like a madman. He has persuaded the Lord Chancellor, his doctor and an equerry to pass the time by performing King Lear with him. None of the others has ever read any Shakespeare (who was out of favour at that period), so it is to their dawning horror that the tragedy of a mad king unfolds. As King George explains the ending of the play to the doctor, the Lord Chancellor says to him:
Your Majesty seems more yourself.
King George: Do I? Yes I do. I’ve always been myself, even when I was ill. Only now I seem myself. That’s the important thing. I have remembered how to seem.
That could sound like hypocrisy – putting on our fake face, the person we want others to see – but it is actually the opposite. We don’t believe that we are just animals, our instincts unaffected by reason and faith. Learning how to ‘seem’ ourselves, to be our true selves on the outside, to others (and perhaps in the process reforming those selves a bit for public consumption), is a wonderful way of thinking about recollection. In recalling ourselves to being the people we are called to be, consistent with our Christian faith, and making sure that we do seem it, we learn to show forth what we believe by how we appear to others. It is also honest, because we all know that we try, in being Christians, to be better than the greed and competitiveness, the petty jealousies and dishonesties to which we are all in fact subject. Learning to seem our Christian selves is a piece of behavioural therapy which can turn into a good becoming, which can re-create us as children of God.
Fr Eric was getting at something similar – he was constantly urging us, as people preparing for priestly ministry, to an integrated personhood, a faith in which outside and inside become ever more coherent. It mustn’t just be for Lent (his complaint was right in that respect), but Lent can help us to begin the project afresh.
A few years ago I spent some time in the Chilean Atacama desert, the driest place on earth: no rain has ever been recorded there. What you notice in the desert is a unique clarity, in all the silence and dry emptiness, the ancient moon-like rocks and sand gradually reclaiming all the efforts of human beings to live there or tame them. I’ve never been to the desert into which Jesus was driven, but I saw in the Atacama how that profound emptiness and freedom from distraction could lead to some very profitable self-examination.
So, this Lent, try to spend some time alone, in your personal desert; somewhere quiet and apart, just thinking about things; and especially try to recollect yourself as God remembers you, with love. Dark and disturbing thoughts will come – as they did to Jesus in his desert experience. But God is with us (Angels looked after him, we heard: they are there for us as well). And be thankful; there’s too little thankfulness about, I think, yet it is the core of the Mass, our primary encounter with God. Try to strip away some of the noisy business that interferes with remembering who you really are, a child of God, so that you can seem it to others. See yourself as a beloved child of God, who is lovable. From there, you will learn to love your neighbour afresh.
God loves and remembers you: turn to him again, repent and love; learn to seem the self he made you to be.