Thursday, February 18, 2010

Keeping Lent

Yesterday's imposition of ashes was, as always, impossibly moving. For me, it's one of the most powerful experiences in public ministry, to speak again and again that reminder of mortality coupled as it is with the route to eternal life
"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ"
To trace the cross on so many different foreheads, old and younger...
Always I'm reminded of those who knelt last year but whose faith is now rewarded at journey's end...Their faces are very real, their memories very close.

This year, still shining gently inside after the shriving of Shrove Tuesday, I found myself longing to talk about penitence and forgiveness.
As I listened to the Word, I was really struck by the contrast between the community's expression of sorrow presented in Joel, where all was activity - a very public DOING of repentance, trumpeted abroad and drawing in all and sundry, young and old, even if they were otherwise engaged ("Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her canopy") and the utter stillness of the encounter between Jesus and the woman taken in adultery.
As I read that gospel yesterday morning it seemed that the whole history of human sin and forgiveness had shrunk to one conversation with a woman so publicly condemned that she didn't even need to find the words to describe her own sin. The hubbub of the righteously indignant crowd stills as they become uncomfortably self-aware, perhaps for the first time, of their own shortcomings. They withdraw, slink away? - leaving two figures, alone as we are all truly alone when we stand before God.
For her to hear those words "Neither do I condemn you" must have been like a long drink of water on a scorching day...the one thing that changes how we see and understand everything.
Mind blowing!

It seems to me that perhaps our Lenten observance needs to include both elements. Maggi reminded me of the corporate nature of the Lenten fast in the medieval church - it wasn't a question of "What are you giving up?" because everyone fasted together, and in denying themselves a staple it was never a matter of casual self improvement but a daily reminder of our dependence on God. Today's culture, with its focus on self expression, self fulfillment, risks turning even Lent into another chorus of the popular song
"It's all about ME, Jesus..." - and there is surely a place for collective repentance, which we are all too ready to ignore.
But at the heart of it all there is that stillness as each of us comes before God, conscious of our fragile mortality but daring to trust in the Love that comes to meet us.

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