SERMON: Observing Lent

SERMON: Observing Lent

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by David Barton on Ash Wednesday 2024

In the Team Meeting at the beginning of each month, we always begin with a short service of meditation and prayer.  Last week there was a bible reading from that passage in Isaiah we have just had:

Is not this the fast that I choose?  To unlock the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free.

And that passage was followed by a short extract from a sermon by Bishop Oscar Romero.   He said:  “We live in a time of struggle between truth and lies, between sincerity – which almost no one believes in  – and hypocrisy and intrigue.”   And he goes on, “Let’s not be afraid, brothers and sisters; lets try to be sincere, to love truth, lets try to model ourselves on Christ Jesus.  It is time for us to have a great sense of selection, of discernment.”

Its a riveting juxtaposition: Isaiah and Romero.  And our brief discussion afterwards centred round how much of what Romero said was relevant now.  There is a real loss of truth.  Lies are commonplace among certain people in high places.  The kind of hypocrisy that will publicly speak of “alternative facts.”  Romero’s words neatly sum up the kind of anxiety many of us have about aspects of the politics of our day.

But it is important to see just where Romero was coming from.  He was made Archbishop of San Salvador in the mid seventies;  appointed because he was a deeply conservative churchman, and because, one suspects, he was unlikely to trouble the arch conservative military who were in power in San Salvador at the time.  He followed the teachings of Opus Dei. He was critical of Liberation Theology. 

But at the heart of his life there was a deep devotion to the gospel, and above all the person of Christ.   And increasingly, as he went about his diocese, he became appalled not just by the by the grinding poverty.  He could not avoid noticing the increasing brutality of the military regime.  It ran utterly contrary to Christ’s profound care for, and love of, the poor that he know from the gospels.  He was increasingly troubled.   And when his friend and fellow priest Rutilo Grande was murdered, he became openly outspoken.  That was too much for those in power.  He was gunned down as he celebrated Mass with a large congregation in front of his cathedral.  He died shortly afterwards.    It was the 24th March 1980.  And that incident in distant, rural San Salvador slowly gained the world’s attention.

In 2010 the UN declared the day of his death as an International Day for the Right to the Truth.   In 2015 Pope Francis proclaimed him a Martyr.  And he was made saint in 2018.  He is one of the ten 20th Century Martyrs carved in stone on the West Front of Westminster Abbey.

Its worth reflecting on that connection between Romero’s profound inner devotion to Christ and the Gospel;  and that outspokenness and courage in someone who was not schooled in political comment. 

What Romero said was profoundly and recognisably the truth. That’s why it cut home with those to whom it was directed.  But unlike so much political speak it was utterly devoid of anger and hate. It was genuinely spoken in love, by someone who felt a deep pastoral care for, not just the oppressed, but the oppressor as well.  It is that large dimension of Love, utterly rooted in God, which gives Romero’s words their power – power in the end to sweep them across the world.

The point of Lent is that it is a call to turn back again to that same rootedness in God which is the core foundation of our Christian lives. Giving up something is one thing, and it has its place – a reminder of our need for self discipline perhaps.  But it is the inner work that matters.  Looking again at the face of Christ.  Renewing our understanding of Christ as we read the gospels.  Christ’s place in our lives is at their total centre.  Christ is our truest self.  I in you and you in me, he said.  Christ in you the hope of Glory, Paul said, echoing that.

We may not understand that. Indeed its a profound mystery.  But we can ponder it.  Because it remains the truth, whether we understand it or not.  A truth that is always waiting for us to be awake to it.  Christ is at the centre of the life of each one of us.  When we wake up to that we begin to realise that we always live in the flow of God’s love.  The things we do, the attitudes we take, who we are, and the words we speak – all of it comes from there.  And its important the realise what matters is not really a matter of thinking about the idea. Pondering is different. Just holding the the truth of Christ in us is what matters. And trusting, above all trusting.

There are always plenty of suggestions around for observing Lent.  Books to read, courses to follow.  But what I’m suggesting is not hugely time consuming.   Perhaps, whatever else we might do, we can find five minutes/ten minutes each day just to put ourselves in the presence of God and ponder the mystery of his life in us. I in you and you in me. And remember: its not a matter of thinking. Just being silent in the presence of God, pondering and trusting.