Abbot Patrick’s Ash Wednesday Homily

Ash Wednesday, 2012

Presidential candidate in the United States, Newt Gingrich, plans to develop a commercial space industry similar to our airline networks if he becomes president. A permanent base on the moon will service an interplanetary kind of Ryanair to take people on holiday or business trips to other planets. His preferred destination is Mars. ‘I grew up, he says, with a romantic belief that space is our destiny.’ Well, he is right, space is our destiny; but it is quite an other kind of space to the one he is intent on exploring. We live here on earth in space and time, measured out for us in metres and minutes; some of us live long lives, others very short ones; none of us will ever live longer than 150 years. It is a mere flicker in the billion year history of the universe. But our destiny is a different kind of space and time altogether. We call this other kind of space infinity, and this other kind of time eternity.

And that is why we have a Lenten programme. We celebrate the fact that although we were created from the dust of earth, and are fragile, vulnerable people, our destiny is to live forever in heaven. Built as disposable, non-durable goods we are called to become permanent to the point of everlastingness. We have to prepare ourselves for that.

Mars is thirty four and a half million miles away. A trip to Mars would take three years and expose us, during that time, to zero gravity, strapped into a seat in a spaceship. When we eventually landed on the red planet, we would have to be strong enough to walk and to work. To prepare themselves for such a trip to Mars, astronauts spend sixty days in bed without ever getting up. Their beds are tilted so that their feet are six degrees higher than their heads. They shower lying down; they jog in bed, strapped into vertical treadmills that make them feel they are running up a wall. This preparation provokes a physical reaction similar to the weightlessness which our bodies experience in outer space. In microgravity, one expert has said, ‘human beings become halfway between a fish and a bird.’

Our Lenten effort is preparing us to go even further than Mars – we plan to go into God. Living forever with God requires three things: first, getting to know God as an intimate friend, so that living with God becomes the greatest desire of my heart; secondly getting myself fit for eternity, getting my body in trim, pruning the branches that are holding me back. Thirdly, it means getting a heart transplant: I swop the heart of stone which is in me, for a heart of flesh. This happens by eating the flesh of Jesus Christ and drinking His blood, as we are about to do now in this Eucharist. In this way I become like him and I begin to love as he loves. These three things we call prayer, fasting and almsgiving in an older dispensation. Prayer is loving God; fasting is giving up whatever is holding me back; almsgiving is opening my heart to those around me.

St Benedict tells us that Lent is a runway for Easter. We prune ourselves back for better growth in Spring. We prepare ourselves to rise from the dead by leaving behind us the dead wood that weighs us down. Rising from the dead means living with God in infinity and for eternity. We prepare ourselves for this marathon, this long walk to infinity, just as every athlete or astronaut prepares for take-off.

Lent is our time to train ourselves for the big day: the day we arrive into infinite spaces and eternal vistas. Let us make ourselves a little bit more ready for this privilege by the time this Easter comes. Let us live more fully, more expansively, and more for other people: Ever, evermore, everlastingly, Amen.