Ash Wednesday Sermon

On Monday I accidentally marked Shrove Tuesday a day early. I decided to us up all the egg in the kitchen so made myself something that approximated to a Spanish omelette. I had completely forgotten that in Spain they prepare for lent not by eating pancakes but by eating tortillas.

In Iceland yesterday has a splendid name- Sprengidagur- bursting day, as all the salted meat has to be finished off before Lent begins.

It is a bit of challenge that Lent and all our traditional ways of preparing our souls for Easter now get lost between the day we gorge ourselves on pancakes and the day we tuck into chocolate eggs!

Our modern obsessions with food do offer a challenge to what were once thought to be the core principles of Lent. Food was once simply the stuff which we ate to keep us alive. Now when we shop and eat we think of pleasure, of danger and of ethics. Is it tasty? Is it bad for us? Is it bad for the environment, or does it deprive the workers of their just wages?

No wonder there are increasing numbers of people suffering from eating disorders!

At one level this might make Lent more complicated, but it might make things more simple.

I have always been quite a fan of the Epicureans. They are my favourite school of ancient Greek philosophers and although people who are knowledgeable about the history of Christianity are well aware of the influence of the Stoics, Plato and Aristotle on the Church; many are oblivious to the Epicureans’ contribution.

Here are some of their key ideas.

Lots of possessions and stuff are not guarantors of happiness.

Friendship is the most fulfilling type of relationship- much more important in the long run than romance.

People are much more content when they live with others, rather than in isolation.

That being aware of your mortality gives you a sense of what counts. They practised meditation and awareness of their fragile condition.

That simple food is in the end most sustaining and satisfying.

Sound at all familiar? Although theologically the Epicureans were atheist, they seem to have paved the way for monasticism.

They lived in community, fostered friendship and practised a simple lifestyle.

I think it is instructive that their way of life seems to have been adopted by Christianity.

It might help us think again about why we give things up.

Why voluntary austerity came to be seen as essential part of the Spiritual life.

Not because God demanded it, not because God wants us to feel rotten about ourselves and not because it is a church tradition we must slavishly follow.

Courtesy of the Dean of Southwark I came across a brilliant quotation from the composer Mahler this week- one that might be worth putting above every door into church.

Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.

A question I have for myself and all of us.

Is do we think that Jesus was miserable?

This man who knew himself to be beloved of God his Father, who brought healing and joy. Who was serenely unafraid of bullying religious leaders and political figures. Who spoke with such wisdom and acted with such compassion.

And yet trod lightly and was more likely to be surrounded by friends than encumbered by possessions. Who drew crowds to himself not by demagoguery but by having something to say. And fed them with bread and fish, and spiritual nourishment.

All too often Christians are accused of looting the pagan past for their own ends, but I think they saw in the Epicurean way of life echoed the example of our Lord.

That is the fire we wish to re-kindle and preserve.

And we don’t have to make that leap against our wills and in the face of our inclinations. Lent is about finding ourselves again. What matters, what is essential.

The penitential prayer that we are about to say together is about

Shedding the collateral emotional and moral damage done to us and by ourselves, laying to one side the fruitless objectives we burden ourselves with,

That in the words of our confession tonight.

Have wounded God’s love and marred his image in us.

And getting things right, becoming whole, and pursuing  what give us a chance of real happiness.






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