Sunday next before Lent
and Brothers in Christ
We are moving into our period of Lent. Traditionally Lent begins on Ash Wednesday with a focus on repentance. The long tradition of carnivals and of merriment on the Tuesday give us a sense that this repentance includes some punishment, or at least a period of unpleasantness. In my morning prayers, as I’ve said before, I like to take parts from the Book of Common Prayer. And I do start my morning each day with the ‘general confession’, but there is one phrase I really dislike: ‘and there is no health in me’ which comes after confessing that we have erred in the things we have done and the things we have not done. I just dislike thinking there is ‘no health in me’. I know that this phrase is intended to make us accept that in ourselves we have a very difficult time doing those things we ought to do and not doing those things we ought not to do, but still ‘no health’? So I’ve thought long and hard about this phrase both in the context in which it was written, and what it is actually saying.
Which makes me think also of the penitential psalm, Psalm 51 often read as part of Ash Wednesdays services. The author Anne Vaughn Prowse Lock (Or Anne Lock for short!) was a translator and a poet writing in the mid 1500s. She took the Psalm 51 and wrote a sonnet sequence using each verse of the Psalm as inspiration for a sonnet. By the way, she was the first person that we know of to write a sonnet sequence in English, and the first do to so using the English Sonnet form (it wasn’t Shakespeare, though he often gets the credit!). Again, this sonnet sequence, in keeping with Psalm 51 really piles on thick this idea that as human beings we are so unhealthy. She has a particularly striking line in her third sonnet, ‘So foul is sin and loathsome in thy sight, So foul with sin I see myself to be.’ And she goes on a bit in this vein, as does the Psalm.
The Book of Common prayer confession, Psalm 51 and Anne Lock’s poetry, among many other writings, often gives a strong sense of our ‘sin’, our ‘unhealthyness’. And if one were to stop with this, that would be pretty depressing – it would indeed lead us to Despair, which continues to be one of the greatest barriers to the flourishing life for which God made us. I’m not sure why we seem so keen to stop reading when we hit the idea of sin, stop praying when we hit our sense of our ‘unhealthiness’, because neither the Book of Common Prayer, nor Anne Lock, nor Psalm 51, nor the Gospels, nor any of our vibrant spiritual writings stop there. Instead they always move ahead from sin, through repentance to forgiveness to flourishing. They show us that God simply has no intention of letting us wallow in our feelings of loathsomeness.
In our common worship service for Ash Wednesday, these words are often used as part of the gathering, as we begin the service: “By carefully keeping these days, Christians take to heart the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel, and so grow in faith and in devotion to our Lord”
What this is saying is that it is not Pancake night or Carnival that should give us real joy. It is the day we turn our face to God, knowing that we are not perfect, knowing that we pretty constantly do things that we ought not to do, and do not do the things we ought to do. It is the day we that rather than receiving condemnation, we look straight into the face of our loving God, who offers us the potent cure of repentance and forgiveness – freely given to us as a parent to a child.
Again, think of the Lord’s Prayer, those actual words that God, through Jesus, gave us to speak: ‘And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us’. This is how we flourish, we accept forgiveness and that enables us to forgive. This beautiful cycle of forgiveness received and given forms the basis for God’s Kingdom coming, God’s will being done, on earth as it is in the Realm that is God’s Kingdom and that already flows into the world through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ash Wednesday is a celebration of repentance and forgiveness through God’s great, creative, awesome Love. And we need to accept fully that forgiveness – no half-hearted, yes God forgives me but I’m still a loathsome person, sort of acceptance. But the sort of acceptance that acknowledges that God loves us so much, that God’s hand is always upon us, and that God’s forgiveness flows freely to us. We need to ask God to help us to understand and truly accept that God knows of what we are made, and so heals us, continually preparing us for our life in God’s heavenly Kingdom. And God in this healing also enables us to heal others through forgiveness, and thus in this cycle of love, repentance, forgiveness, love, we live and move and have our being. And that is how we flourish. We are creatures much loved by God, created by God’s love, full stop.
I still don’t like the phrase ‘and there is no health in me’ but I think what the 16th century writers were trying to say is that in and of myself I can’t heal, but in this cycle of God’s love so powerfully brought into this world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and kept vibrant through the Holy Spirit that permeates everything, we are healed and made whole. You’ll be pleased to know that this is the same conclusion that comes in the Penitential Psalm 51 and Anne Lock’s poetry sequence with both recognizing that repentance is part of our walk towards God. Away from God we are not what we should be, not our best and most beautiful selves, but in God we are best and most beautiful.
And again, this takes me back to my favorite psalm of late, Psalm 139, which assures us that God knows everything about us, and that there is no place that we can ever be where God is not there, loving us, guiding us and protecting us. Repentance helps us to joy in God’s presence more fully.
On Ash Wednesday we will celebrate!
Revd Professor Jessica Malay
Almondbury with Farnley Tyas