According to our Eucharistic (thanksgiving prayer) today is the day when we are led “into the desert of repentance that through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline we may grow in grace and learn to be your (God’s) people once again.” The Imposition of Ashes reminds us “that we are dust, and to dust we shall return”. On the face of it Ash Wednesday sounds pretty miserable – but wait a minute, for words by Herbert McCabe quoted by Timothy Radcliffe in “Why go to Church“:
If we go to confession, it is not to plead for forgiveness from God. It is to thank him for it … When God forgives our sins, he is not changiing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love.” (from God, Christ and Us)
I came across this brilliant poem thanks to Jenee Woodard’s wonderful work with the Textweek website.
Marked by Ashes
Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.
This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness with
some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.
On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
you Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.
Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933)
>How do we hear confession these days?
The answer is that we increasingly hear them with banners of publicity (tabloid headlines) and humiliation. Everything seems to be so terribly public these days with the interesting excuse for broadcasting our sins being “it’s in the reader’s/hearer’s interest”. I don’t call it confession when someone has been hounded and a “confession” wrung out of them. That’s like a someone being wrestled to the canvas to find out who ate the last Rolo. That’s not confession but submission. The person confessing has to be in control of the conversation – not the other way round.
Confessions are normally heard by friends (including our confessions of not being a good friend for them). They are people we can confide in. We choose the confessor/friend to fit the confession and it’s someone whose judgement we can trust and whose love we can trust will not be shaken by the disclosure that “here’s a bit of myself you may or may not know that I don’t like and find difficult to live with” – or “here’s something I’ve done (or do) of which I am greatly ashamed. The confidence is that the confessor and the confession is going to help me to reshape how I view myself and amend what I do, and is going to keep the confession to the privacy of the confessional.
Sometimes a confession is out of the reach of friends – beyond their power to comprehend when they have to honestly say they cannot help us on this one. They might need the help of a counsellor – someone with the knowledge and the experience that is needed. I wonder whether something similar was going on in the story from the gospels of the those who bring their friend to Jesus and lower him through the roof so that he can hear Jesus’s good news that his sins are forgiven.
When we hear confession we normally hear something with which we are very familiar that all sorts of bells ring in our own hearts. Sometimes though we hear of something which is so beyond our own experience and understanding that we don’t know what to make of it. We have to cope with our shock, nausea and sometimes even revulsion. Thinking this through I have come to realise how important what we (in the trade) call theological reflection. Theological reflection is a process we can go through involving exploration and reflection to help us to the best possible response. We have to remember that the person confessing has also gone through that process of theological reflection to be at the point of confession. S/he will have had countless replays and sleepless nights weighing offences and options before coming to the conclusion that the best way forward on this or that is to confide in another.
Confessors should love them for that moral courage alone. They should be sure that God does. Then a smile, a touch, an “it’s OK” (genuinely, not cheaply, given)is sometimes all that is needed for someone to know that their sins are forgiven.
As Christians we need to celebrate these sacramental moments of reconciliation and healing. Perhaps we need to confess to our monopolising and over-institutionalising confession. We tend to focus in our worship on confessing our sins to God. Perhaps at the back of our minds is the question posed by the Pharisees – “Who can forgive sins – surely only God can forgive sins?” But Jesus did teach us to forgive one another, so let’s hope we respond well when someone has the confidence in us to say “pardon me”.
Madrid is full of boys named Paco, which is diminutive for the name Francisco, and there is a Madrid joke about a father who came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal which said: PACO MEET ME AT THE HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN PAPA and how a squadron of Guardia Civil had to be called out to disperse the eight hundred young men who answerd the advertisement.
So begins Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Capital of the World”
>Red is the colour of Christmas.
I was supposed to have assembled an advent wreath for my wife’s school last night. It comes to her going this morning – no advent wreath, and the search for candles begins. “You need red candles” says I. “Why?” says she. Because …. the holly (crown of thorns) bears a berry as red as any blood thinks I as I hastily assemble the case for RED. And then there’s the robin’s red breast of the Christmas card, the poinsettias – and the awareness that Chrismas marks a time – let’s run the two words together – forgiving.
Miroslav Volf tells the story of his parents’ forgiveness for the soldier and the childminder who caused the death of Miroslav’s five year old brother, Daniel. He had slipped out under the nanny’s guard to go and play with the real soldiers of the nearby barracks. The bored soldiers welcoomed the diversion of their playmate. One of them put Daniel on a horse drawn bread wagon. As they went through a gate on a bumpy cobblestone road, Daniel leaned sideways and his head got stuck between the gatepost and the wagon. Daniel died on the way to hospital. Both parents forgave the child minder and the soldier. Why? “Because the Word of God tells us to forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us, and so we decided to forgive” said his parents. Human history is adorned by heroes like these people who say that enough is enough, and who, inspired by Jesus’s forgiveness, find themselves able to forgive. Miroslav’s father said: “why should one more mother be plunged into grief, this time because of the loss of her son, a good boy, but careless in a crucial moment …?”
Red is the colour of a time forgiving.
> I am intrigued by the question asked in this week’s gospel – Matthew 18:21. “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Jesus comes back with the answer – not just seven times, but seventy seven times or seventy times seven.
The number 7 might refer to the days of the week – so if seven times isn’t enough then “everyday” forgiveness isn’t enough. 77 times – or 490 times would suggest that it’s to be a lifetime discuipline and that forgiveness should never be exhausted.
Jesus seems to have in the background the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4 and 5)- because again we seem to have all the 7s.
The story first – and then the numbers.
Cain and Abel were the sons of Mr and Mrs First who got done for disobedience. Both of them make their offerings – Abel’s was a good one because he gave the best. Cain’s was less than good because (like most of us) he gave what he could get away with. God showed favour towards Abel, and Cain became so jealous of his brother that he killed him – is Genesis arranged to make the point that it doesn’t take long before we start killing one another? Here’s a moving picture by Leon J.F. Bonnat (French 1834-1923) showing Adam with the body of his son in his arms. Tracey Clarke shows the horror of the first murder as something that had never entered God’s mind.
God comes calling. But he doesn’t curse Cain, though Cain acts as if he has. It’s the earth beneath his feet that curses him. Cain is a frightened man but God promises his protection – and here’s where the 7s start. God says: “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a seven-fold vengeance.”
That’s not the end of it. Cain has family – and the 6th generation – his gt, gt, gt, gt garndson is called Lamech. There is a puzzling reference to Lamech also killing someone. Lamech had a son – his name is NOAH (the 7th generation) – and the rainbow of his story is to be a sign of God’s forgiveness for ever – perhaps 70 times 7 generations having forgiveness overarching their whole existence. Noah was the start of something big – and Lamech had one enormous birthday cake. We are told that (pre-viagra) he was 182 when Noah was born – and that he lived for another 595 years. That is one hell of a lot of candles – 777 in all (182+595).
The magnificence of God’s forgiveness is well captured in the Psalm (103) with such phrases as “the Lord is full of compassion and mercy”, “as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his mercy upon those who fear him.” “As fas as the east is from the west, so far has he ste our sins from us.”