s011ag99 Somerton Park Ash Wednesday 17/2/99
"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" Mat 6.21
Ash Wednesday is a lovely day. I have always liked it as a liturgical event. It has never been a trial to hold extra services. Yet it has always been a frustrating service because there is no common theme. It is a hotchpotch of this and that, when I would have thought coming together for a special day, there might be some special thing that stands out within the liturgy to draw us.
Historically, the liturgy for Ash Wednesday has its roots in the service "A Commination" along with a set propers for a service of Holy Communion on Ash Wednesday in the Book of Common Prayer of 1662. Mercifully the former has been infrequently used and the service I have developed is adapted from the "Book of Common Prayer" of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. The Imposition of Ashes began about the 8th to the 10th century, when the discipline of the public admission of penitents fell into disuse. In the service I have prepared, the words of A Prayer Book for Australia Broughton Books 1996 have been substituted where possible. To make full use of the joys of A Prayer Book for Australia, even a cursory glance through the service I have prepared shows that sections from various places need to be brought together. This service is in a process of development.
However I am beginning to realise just how many strands there are in the service.
In the service of Commination, I suppose it is appropriate to say (at times) "Cursed is he that maketh the blind to go out of his way", though the opportunity to do this is fairly rare I would have thought. More likely the injunction "Cursed is he that smiteth his neighbour secretly" needs to be heeded more frequently.
There is the strand of repentance and forgiveness for sin - both personal but also corporate - as exemplified in the Joel reading. But this concentrating on sins is only in the OT reading. The epistle, from 2 Cor is about everything "has become new", and about Christ "to be sin ..." which seems an acceptance of ... rather than a fleeing from ...
The gospel speaks about God seeing the good things we do and making sure the secret good things we do are rewarded. There is no element of God being concerned with our particular personal misdemeanours in the passage.
There is also the strand of an acknowledgement of our mortality - in the imposition of ashes. However the service itself is not specific as to the purpose of this. It could be to get us to acknowledge our smallness within the eternal scheme of things (which I wouldn't personally spend much time on proclaiming) or it could be to encourage us to get on with living our life to the full (a rather more happy moral).
More recently prayers have been added for forgiveness for our exploitation of the environment to the detriment of succeeding generations.
But there is also the celebration of the Holy Communion - which is by definition a celebration - somewhat removed from the former strands. My confusion is compounded with the priest wearing purple vestments - purple being the colour of victory. It is indeed appropriate for a celebration but premature in a service focussing on repentance. The colour appropriate for repentance is sackcloth - I would presume a rough brown material. I'm not sure I would want to celebrate in such attire. It raises the whole question of the confusion of symbols. We have come together today for a reason surely - not half a dozen! What are we doing?
I don't mind wearing purple vestments on Sundays "in Lent" because actually only weekdays are part of Lent - Sunday is always a feast day.
Indeed this begs the question - In the Christian life is there ever really occasion for fasting? The Table of Feast and Fasts in the Book of Common Prayer 1662 has always had more feasts than fasts specified anyway - yet the feasts seem to be mostly forgotten.
Going back, if there were laws useful to be proclaimed rather more regularly than present, I would have thought those barring reception of the Holy Communion might be appropriate, as specified in the preface to the service of Holy Communion:
being an open and notorious evil liver ... that the congregation be thereby offended ... and ... those betwixt whom ... malice and hatred ... reign ...
For with the best will in the world I cannot conceive of a person who is divorced and remarried being an open and notorious evil liver, nor indeed a couple living together before marriage, nor also someone who expresses their intimate affections with another person of the same gender as themselves. I would certainly want the backing of a Vestry motion as evidence of the congregation being offended, before I would ever open myself to a charge of defamation. But I do see malice and hatred to reign often enough ... How sad it is that we neglect the issues that ordinary people like ourselves, myself included, readily fall into - by concentrating on what we perceive as the more serious (sexual) sins of others.
Let us recognise that few if any are evil, and if they indeed are, they are not likely to be queuing up to receive the Holy Communion. That someone desires God's blessing by being present in this, God's house, then let us trust God to deal appropriately with each and all. It is easy to "love the sinner and hate the sin", yet the sinner knows the reality only of the later part of this statement.
Let us understand too that God is not interested in life's little misdemeanours, God is far more concerned that malice and hatred between people, does not reign.
As I typed the curse about leading the blind man out of his way, I think of the blind student at the local secondary school - a talented baritone being lead about England and Rome by his fellow students in the school choir a year or so ago. I guess there are times when this lad is ragged, but it would have been to make him feel part of the group.
I recall an English migrant saying to me once that very soon after arriving in Australia he quickly realised that if Australian men liked you they made fun of you or your ancestry. They'd call you a "******* pom". If Australians didn't like you - they ignored you. Sometimes those things go awry too, and people can be unintentionally offended.
Let us not dwell on those times when our efforts to include others have gone awry, or when we have been tired and irritable and snapped back. Let us treat ourselves gently and realise that others get out of the wrong side of the bed occasionally too.
God is there, not with a big stick ready to beat us for all the petty misdemeanours that afflict us all, but ready and waiting to make sure that our efforts to include others which we do unobtrusively are indeed rewarded.
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