Back in the 1990s, in the days when many things had yet to be computerised, if ever I visited my local GP practice, on arrival I would be handed my medical notes in one of those buff-coloured cardboard wallets that used to be standard NHS issue for that particular purpose.
On the front of the cardboard envelope was my full name, date of birth, current address and telephone, NHS number, and all the other standard pieces of information that identified who I was. Rather more alarming were two little boxes at the bottom of the front cover that had yet to be filled in. One of them was labelled ‘date of death’; the other ‘cause of death’. And every time I was handed my medical notes and saw those two little boxes, I invariably found that rather stark reminder of my own mortality rather startling. Because I was disconcertingly aware of the inescapable fact that the day would come when both pieces of information would be a matter of public record: the date and cause of my own death.
Having said that, I did cheer up momentarily when eventually we reached the millennium, and I spotted that the space in which the year of my death was due to be recorded was still labelled ‘nineteen – blank, blank’. Because for a very fleeting moment I felt a wonderful, if completely irrational wave of relief at having made it to the year 2000, as if, thanks to the short-term nature of NHS administration, I had successfully managed to outwit the grim reaper.
Most of us do not go through life with a constant and acute awareness of the fact that we are going to die. I am not sure that anything approaching a normal life would be possible if we did. But I suspect that all of us have had occasional moments when the fact of our individual mortality has suddenly become very real to us. Perhaps when someone close to us has died suddenly and unexpectedly; or when we became aware of having had a very narrow escape from a serious accident; or when we developed medical symptoms that might possibly point to something quite serious. At such times, the cold, hard, inescapable fact of our mortality can suddenly feel disconcertingly real.
Ash Wednesday is the one day above all others in the church’s year when we are invited – or perhaps, challenged – to look squarely at that cold, hard, inescapable fact, and to consider its implications. Because it is all too easy to forget, or to avoid facing the fact that we do not have all the time in the world. Far from it. Some of us may have considerably less time than we like to assume we have. We simply cannot know.
Now, although all this may sound unbelievably gloomy and depressing, actually it isn’t. Indeed, it always seems to me that, if anything, Ash Wednesday, is properly understood as a call to life. It is a call to take seriously those Gospel parables that charge us to keep awake; to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. It is a call to treasure the gift of life that is ours, for the short time that we have it, and to pledge ourselves to use that gift in God’s service. But for that to be possible, in any deep sense, requires us to have the courage to take a long, hard look at the human beings we really are; to acknowledge our shortcomings, and our lack of faithfulness; to ask for God’s forgiveness, and to pray for his grace.
The idea of God’s judgment is not always terribly popular in some theological circles these days. But it has always seemed to me to be a doctrine that is of fundamental importance to the Christian faith. Because what it says is that human beings have been granted the freedom and the responsibility to make choices. That is part of the wonder and the dignity of being human. But another aspect of that freedom and responsibility is that we are answerable for the choices we make: we are answerable for the way in which we use the precious gift of life that has been entrusted to us. And the choices we make reveal the truth about what is written in our hearts. What we are is revealed in what we do.
And sometimes it is the fine details, and what we might regard as the trivia of our daily lives that are most revealing of all. John V. Taylor once wrote that ‘The real direction that a soul takes towards heaven or hell is mainly determined by an infinite number of almost infinitesimal choices, any one of which may be of ultimate seriousness.’ And if that thought does not give us all the occasional sleepless night, then it probably ought to.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus warns his followers against making a show of their religion in public. Because God really isn’t terribly interested in our external shows of religious observance, or religious posturing. There is, of course, a place for Lenten disciplines, but the most important feature of such practices is something that should remain private between us and God. Because ultimately one thing, and one thing only matters. Namely, what is written in our hearts.
Each year at this service, I issue an invitation to those who in normal times are physically present, to come forward to receive the sign of the cross on their foreheads in ash. The ashes are, of course, a reminder of our mortality: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ But the sign of the cross that accompanies the ash is a symbol of the hope of new life that we have in Christ, and an invitation to ‘turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’ And in that sense it really is a call to a new kind of living, while we still have the chance.
I am always very struck by the fact that the Collect for Ash Wednesday has surprisingly little to say about self-denial, but a great deal to say about the forgiveness of God, and God’s ability to transform our hearts, so that we can truly recognise our need for God’s love and grace, and so be changed into his likeness.
Almighty and everlasting God,
You hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent.
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts,
that lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness,
we may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect forgiveness and peace:
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.