Ash Wednesday

Sermon: Wednesday 22 February 2012

Ash Wednesday

The Revd Canon Johannes Arens

Lent has begun.  And all over the country people will give things up – alcohol or chocolate, or champagne and oysters – the combination, not individually of course.  Some of you will probably give things up during Lent; I will do, as I have said rather embarrassingly publicly.  Not only adults do this, but children as well.  It is a good thing to either give things up or to do extra things, and possibly to save some money and to give it to a worthy cause.  One problem with it can be that it easily becomes part of the wellness movement.  There’s no better time to get in shape as the weather starts to improve.  And so when Easter arrives, you will be ready to enjoy the summer, fitter, happier and healthier and with the perfect bikini figure.

What a load of rubbish.  Today Canon David will give us all the news that we are going to die.  ‘Know that you are dust and to dust you shall return,’ we are told, as the forehead is marked with ash.  That’s the message with which Lent properly begins.  And that’s why the Lent of cheery self-improvement is such a con.  It’s not about being fitter and healthier; it’s about facing our own mortality.  No amount of jogging will ever outpace Father Time.  No cream or cosmetic or total makeover with lots of plastic surgery can ever prevent us from becoming dust.

However obvious this is, much of our culture is intent on hiding death away and denying its reality.  We used to be coy about sex, telling children they were delivered by the stork.  When my father asked his mother why he could not have another brother she told him that the only babies left had bow legs and ginger hair: therefore she decided not to have another one.  If you think this is stupid, you are absolutely right.  But I think we are no less stupid about our dealing with death.  Now we are coy about death, referring to it as having ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘passed away’.

Most of us and that includes myself feel speechless when confronted with death – what do you say to somebody who is mortally ill and going to die?  It won’t do at all to say ‘everything will be all right’ and ‘you’ll be on your feet in no time’ when we know it’s just not true.  Often these well-meaning lies prevent important conversations from ever taking place: ‘goodbye, sorry, I love you.’

Most people used to die at home surrounded by their families.  Now we mostly die discreetly in hospital, surrounded by machines trying to keep us going, or we need professional care the family just cannot offer.  My grandmother was very coy about anything connected with sexuality and she would be very shocked that I use the word in church – but when it became clear that she was dying we all went to her house, including all of us children, and two of my aunts provided the entire street with coffee and cake in the kitchen.  Neighbours and friends came all day.  The priest came and administered last rites, and during her last two nights some members of the family stayed next to her bed and held her hand and prayed the rosary.

It was not that dignified, there was laughter in the kitchen and my cousins and I did not behave impeccably.  But although I was only very little, I remember this day vividly.  People supported each other, some cried, and we kids were looked after as well and were allowed to play outside when it became too sad.  I was encouraged to say goodbye to Grannie and to hold her hand.  My father told me she could not speak any more, but that she could still hear me.  And so I did say something and gave her a kiss.  My grandmother did not die alone and she did not die in hospital.  Most people would like to die like this but this is only possible for a small minority nowadays, mostly due to caring needs.  This was not an easy day for me as a child, but I am very grateful to my parents that they did not try to spare me the experience of death.  Coming from a country town with a rather traditional community my parents did not make much of a decision: this was the way death was dealt with and of course children were part of this!  Today we are much more helpless how to deal with death in our midst.  I am always horrified if parents try to spare children any talk about death and funerals – by excluding children from these experiences in my eyes we allow them to be frightened by the unknown and forbidden and we exclude our best teachers of how to deal with death.  Children know lots more than we think they do – I have learned amazing things from children when I was a hospice chaplain.

My impression is that nowadays we try to spare each other the reality of death, which is simply impossible: we are all going to die, and this knowledge has a profound impact on our lives.  Avoiding death means to some extend to avoid life.

It’s interesting that during the middle ages the largest and most expensive building in the town would have been the church or in a big city the cathedral.  Today the largest and most expensive buildings in Leicester are probably the hospitals – millions of pounds of glass, steel and technology all bent on keeping us alive.

That says a lot about how our values have changed.  In hospitals, doctors battle against death.  Vast recourses are spent on life-saving technology.  I wonder whether sometimes a very modern superstition is behind this – for we cannot be kept alive.

Yes, the medieval cathedral was a place of superstition too.  But not about this.  For when it comes to death, our ancestors were more grown up than we are.  Death was an ever-present reality, not to be denied or avoided.  They couldn’t hide it away.  It prompted them to ask the big questions of human life and its purpose.  What’s it all about?  What are we here for?  I am amazed how many people have never seen a dead person nowadays.  Growing up in our little town I saw 4 dead bodies before I reached my tenth birthday.  Everybody did.  Today that would be exceptional.

The problem with the Lent of healthy self-improvement is that’s all about avoiding these questions by living the dream of perpetual well-being.  Proper Lent forces us to stop running away and face the simple truth: ‘Know that you are dust and to dust you shall return.’

Our hope is that this last journey we all have to take is one we are not going to take on our own, but that our Lord – who has gone before us – is going to be with us and is going to hold our hand.  Amen.

© Revd Canon Johannes Arens