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Abbot Brendan’s Ash Wednesday Homily

The word ‘Lent’ comes from the old English word for ‘Spring’. Lent is not a time for feeling gloomy or miserable for forty days; it’s not even about giving things up for forty days. Lent is springtime. It’s preparing for that great climax of springtime which is Easter – new life bursting through death – Resurrection. And as we prepare ourselves for Easter during these days, by prayer, fasting and works of mercy, what motivates us is not self-denial as an end in itself, but trying to sweep and clean our own minds and hearts so that the new life really may have room to come in and take over and transform us at Easter. All this clearing and cleaning brings us face to face with the accumulated dust and ashes.

The trouble with dust and ashes is that it’s an uncomfortable and messy mix. Dust is always in the wrong place. There is no good place for dust to be and even though we know that the ashes we use and bless are made from burning last year’s palm branches and are a sign of the Paschal Mystery, we still can’t wait to wash them off! They are such a nuisance. And that is the whole point. ‘The Lord formed us from the dust of the earth’. It is our beginning and our end. ‘By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground. For out of it you were taken; You are dust, And to dust you shall return.’ (Gen 3.19)

So many people under various influences have come to think of Lent as a kind of self–inflicted inconvenience. Very often in Lent we hear these conversations: “What are you giving up for Lent?” – it goes from sweets and chocolate to drink, to I don’t know what. There is the idea that if we suffer enough it would help us to “pay” for our absolution. Lent is not a punishment. Lent is a gift! Lent is a gift from God to us; a gift of the essential. Lent returns to me this essential layer of life. After this comes the essential relationship that we have with everything and everyone in the world. Lent is the time for healing.

The spiritual path starts with learning how to be a bodily person. Learning how to be a person of clay and how to deal with our own limitations and by doing that it also teaches us how to be truthful, merciful, kind, humble and how to be someone who struggles for justice, peace and reconciliation. Realising my own weakness makes me more tolerant of weakness in my neighbour. As St Isaac the Syrian puts it “The one who knows their own sin is higher than the one who resurrects the dead in their prayers. The one who is granted the gift of seeing themselves is superior to the one who has the gift of seeing angels.”

Ash Wednesday is the gateway into Lent, the season of bodily spirituality. That is appropriate as it leads to bodily death on Good Friday which is itself the gateway into bodily resurrection and another season of bodily spirituality which we call Eastertide. There is no real getting away from it: for we are dust, and to dust we shall return. That is why we must turn from sin and follow Christ, who is not merely a good idea, but the Word who was made flesh to dwell among the children of Adam and Eve, the people of dust.

The spirit of this holy season of Lent is neatly summed up in the much-loved prayer of St Ephrem: O Lord and Master of my life, Give me not a spirit of sloth, vain curiosity, lust for power, and idle talk. But give to me your servant, a spirit of soberness, humility, patience and love. O Lord and King, allow me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother & sister, for you are blessed to the ages of ages.

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