This is a sermon for Ash Wednesday, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Psalm 51:2.
Here we are at the start of Lent. A time to seek God’s mercy; a time when we set aside our noise and bustle to hear the still small voice of the Spirit; a time, not to put too fine a point on it, when we pay attention to the reality of sin, and invite God to do something about it.
As I was thinking about how to do that, I’ve been drawn to the verse from the psalm, which asks God to “wash me thoroughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin.”
And I wonder whether the imagery is really all that helpful to us. Because the way the psalmist puts it, it sounds as if sin is a substance, a dirt which clings to us and can be washed away, leaving us bright and clean. But I’m not so sure that’s right.
Here’s what I mean. I don’t think sin is so much a thing in its own right, as an absence of something; an absence of love. St. Paul described sin as “lawlessness;” and we know that the law can be summed up in two commands; love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.
Julian of Norwich, in her visions, was assured of much the same thing; sin is not a “thing,” a substance, but a quality we experience when grace is not yet complete.
So all of this made me think that I really prefer the old-fashioned English of this verse of the psalm, which, instead of “wash me thoroughly,” asks God to “wash me throughly.”
What’s the difference? Instead of being washed thoroughly, so that all evil might be removed, I imagine being washed through with God’s grace; with the Holy Spirit pouring God’s love into my heart until it overflows through every part of my being, leaving none of me untouched or still darkened. Ebbing into all wounds and brokennesses of my humanity and healing them; flooding into all my pride and humbling it; pouring into my unrealised potential and enlivening it.
It’s why, next to this verse in the “thoughtful spot,”* for Lent, I have a picture of Jesus’ baptism; a man immersed in water, and the Spirit hovering over him in light; it seemed to me to capture so very well what it might mean to be washed throughly, and points us back to our own baptism as the place where this process of being loved into wholeness begins.
But of course the process continues from there: and this Lent we have a time to focus on it. So here is the challenge of Lent, as it presents itself to me this year: what can I do in that process? How can I put myself in the best possible situation to be washed through by God’s love?
And this is where the traditional disciplines of Lent might be useful; whether it’s time for prayer or meditation, whether it’s fasting, whether it’s seeking the help and wise counsel of others, or indeed coming to confession; all of those things are tools available to you, and I encourage you to consider how best you might use them. And there are several study group options too; and if you haven’t looked at the leaflet setting them out, I do recommend having a look and seeing whether any of them might speak to where you’re at.
But none of these things are the point; they are means to an end, and that end is to know God’s love for us more fully, and to respond to God in love, more fully. And to be so filled with those loves that the no-thing, the lovelessness, of sin has no space left to claim in us.
As you came in this evening, I had some music playing, which was a song written by Hildegard of Bingen, the 11th century abbess. In it, she recalls how at the beginning of time all creatures grew and blossomed before their creator; but now, she says, she and her “little ones” – by which I gather she means the nuns under her care – are tired and failing; a mockery of what they were supposed to be. But, she says, she knows that the work of God is not complete until our bodies are in fullness of health and arrayed in jewels; so she brings her wounds to the father so that he may stretch out his hand to them, and she implores all of us to do likewise.
It’s a complex poem and my summary doesn’t really do it justice, but that image of bringing our wounds, our vulnerabilities, to the outstretched hand of our loving father, to be restored to health and garbed in dignity, is one worth holding onto; and I encourage you to enter into Lent in that spirit.
*The “thoughtful spot” is a shelf in the narthex of the church, which houses a rotating display of quotes, pictures, and other prompts to reflection.
Hildegard’s Procession from ‘Ordo virtutum’ may be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyqUOYdxYJM