Ash Wednesday, February 13th 2013, St Mary’s, morning

Reading Matthew 6.1–6, 16–21

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

Among the reports of Pope Benedict’s resignation was a picture of him walking with the Queen during his 2010 visit; a memorable picture, when you remember their predecessors and the strife between the Holy See and the English Crown in the 1500s. The play and film A Man for All Seasons is set in that time. It tells the story of Thomas More, who was Henry VIII’s Chancellor and was finally put to death for opposing Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. At one point in the play he meets the Duke of Norfolk, who cannot understand why he, Thomas, alone stands out against the King’s divorce when all the nobility have come into line.

‘You’re behaving like a fool,’ he says. ‘We’re supposed to be the arrogant ones, the proud, the splenetic ones, and we’ve all given in!’
‘I will not give in,’ says More, ‘because I oppose it, I do – not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do – I!’

He then goes up to Norfolk and feels his body, the way you might feel a horse you were thinking of buying (and, these days perhaps eating):

‘Is there no single sinew in the midst of this that serves no appetite of Norfolk’s but is, just, Norfolk? There is! Give that some exercise, my lord!’

It is a good question: is there anything in here that is not just my appetites, my instincts and my urges, but is just me? We have evolved from creatures who live by appetite and instinct, and we do too. But is that all that we are capable of? Am I just a jumble of demands that battle with each other? It’s not that appetites are bad – some are, some aren’t – it’s rather a question of whether they tell the whole story about me. Some say they do, that human consciousness, this sense that there is a ‘me’ that is not just the sum of all the molecules inside me, is a fiction, though a useful one.

Well, today, I’m assuming that there is a ‘me’ in here. It certainly feels that there is, even after I have accounted for all my appetites and urges. Sometimes, to be truly ‘me’, to be myself, I simply need to follow the appetite or the urge. Sometimes I can only be myself by going against the urge. If you have ever needed – really needed – to lose weight, or control your temper, or get to safety despite your fear of heights, you will know what I mean.

This brings us to a part of Christian faith that has got us a bad press, and made us look as if we are anti-life, or at least anti-fun. Think of the saying of Jesus, ‘If your right hand offends you, cut it off’. The hand is the usual instrument of your urges: it’s what you use to grab food or drink or money, or another person. Any of these urges may be good – if you are poor, say, or very hungry, or need to defend yourself – but they may on occasion be bad, they may ‘offend’ your true self; and, because you are bigger than they are, you can cut yourself off from them and still be you; indeed, cutting yourself off from them may make you more yourself, more the person God created you to be.

This is what the tradition of fasting is about. It is not, as Jesus says in the reading, to make a show of your holiness. It’s a secret, he says, it is between you and God; and in that secret place God can show you who you truly are. You can have a fast from anything, from chocolate, from alcohol, from TV, from Twitter. You can have a fast from a habit you pursue without even thinking about, or from a habit you think about a lot, the kind of thing which makes you say ‘Today, whatever else I do, I must have x, or, do y’. Some of these things you might be better off without for ever – if you have a habit of committing adultery, do give it up for Lent, don’t take it up again after Easter – but other things you shouldn’t give up for ever, because they are OK in themselves.

Thomas More’s opponent, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, converted many Latin prayers for use in his Book of Common Prayer. One asks that we might go through the bona temporalia, the good things of this world, without spoiling our chance of reaching the wonderful things of eternity. These earthly, timebound things are good; it is our urges and appetites for them – I must have this, I need that – which can get in the way of heaven. So, once in a while, let’s put them in their place: that’s what Jesus does when he goes away into the wilderness; that’s what we are invited to do when in heart in mind we join Jesus in the wilderness through the season of Lent.

Lent  is a time to learn that good things are not there just to be grabbed, consumed. It is a time for us to find ourselves, our own true selves, buried among all our urges and appetites. It is a time to shut our ears to the voices which shout at us from hoarding, magazine and screen, urging us to turn our wants into needs. It is a time to listen to the voice that can tell us what we really need.

Lent can help us learn to prefer God, to be able to walk away from anything that is not God. Then we shall be less the prisoners of our passions, a little less absorbed by ourselves, a little more free for others, and for God. And that will be good practice for that day when the good things of this world finally pass beyond our reach, and God is all we shall have.

WELCOME deare feast of Lent:
who loves not thee
He loves not Temperance, or Authoritie, Love,
But is compos’d of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast;
The Church sayes, now.

From ‘Lent’, by George Herbert

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