Today, we remember that we are dust

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103.8-18; 2 Cor 5.20b – 6.10; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’

It was lovely to see some of you yesterday at our Mardi Gras online gathering, to be talking briefly about carnival traditions from our respective cultures, and to explain the traditional food that we ate together, albeit at different tables in different places, as we have grown accustomed to the restrictions placed on us by the current pandemic in this past year.

As I was reading to prepare this sermon, I was reminded of the 16th century painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder entitled the fight between Carnival and Lent, which – in the depiction of village life in two halves – highlights the contrast between the two seasons.

On the right hand half of the painting, those coming out of the church have taken on the mantle of this time of preparation, fasting and good works and are working on refocusing their spiritual life on those things which are essential for a life well lived to the full in God. They are shown to be sober and assiduous in helping the poor, tending to the sick and generally doing good works around them at this time set by the church in preparation for sharing in the passion of Christ and his resurrection.

Inevitably, this kind of life can look as if it is grey-er and lacking in colour, and might seem to be anything but unappealing.

On the left on the other hand, those who are still in the Carnival spirit are gorging themselves with meat and wine, there is thieving and gambling, some are drunkenly singing standing on tables, some are vomiting from their windows, there is no care for the injured and the sick, it is a colourful depiction of street life but as we compare and contrast, it is hard to know to which side of the painting we are more attracted.

Because the life focused on pleasure for the self seem to have consequences that are unpalatable to watch, although of course alcohol goggles can easily help us forget the woes of the world and the needs of our neighbour.

Yet, as we recognised in our joyful discussion last night, perhaps the wisdom lies in the balance. For Christians, that would mean remaining focused on the example of Jesus in our own lives, maintaining a live connection and relationship with God through our practice of regular prayer, while at the same time being able to enjoy the beauty and delight of creation in their just measure so that God’s creatures and creation might always be honoured.

In truth, for many of us who have done little but stay within the confines of our apartments for the past year, it may feel as life itself has become an elongated period of Lent.
And for those who have not had the possibility – for better or ill – to work from their computers, and who have had to leave the safety of home to, face the Covid world, every day may have felt like a constant reminder of our frailty.

Today is the day when, with Christians around the world, we use the symbol of the cross in ashes on our forehead in order to remind ourselves that we are not eternal, that our lifespan is limited. And the consequences of this powerful meditation on our mortality invites us, in a pressing way, to decide on how we choose to live our lives.

Clearly, Christians over the ages and in each and every community have come to different conclusions about what and how that might be. For some, a focus of intercessory prayers, constantly praying for the world and others, becomes their task. For others, standing up to injustice and speaking truth to power becomes theirs. For others yet, involving oneself with works of mercy, visiting the imprisoned, the sick and looking after the needs of the poor, oppressed and disadvantage becomes their long time vocation.
But for all of us, discovering our vocation takes place in the context of life. The Brueghel painting does show intermingling between Lent and Carnival, there can both be seriousness of purpose and unadulterated joy, although not at the expense of others. After all, Jesus himself said that he came that we may live life to the full. The challenge is to understand a life fully lived in a way that is not detrimental to us, but instead truly life giving.

I am sure that in this past year of quasi Lenten living, you will already have discovered many aspects of yourself that you might not have realised before. A life constrained is not something that we are used to or like, so accustomed are we in the West to do as we please when we please, without anyone interfering.

I wonder what habits you had you have been forced to drop, and you now think you are better for it. I wonder what are the things that are giving you life now, whether you are living on your own or are sharing space with a young family. In what unexpected part of your picture are you able to combine both your understanding of God’s call for you and the joy of living that that gives you?

Over the course of Lent, the Cathedral will be offering opportunities for reflection about prayer, and we encourage you to try and do a little less if you can – as we all face confinement fatigue. If you can, find a moment for yourself in order to renew your personal relationship with God. You may want to talk to God silently, being in the moment. You may be able to reflect on a piece of scripture which you read or listen to on podcast or a prayer app. You may want to express yourself in other ways – be that in a creative activity like cooking, writing, painting, music making, sowing. Dedicating some moments of your daily life. And you may also connect as you keep in touch with daily news, seeing God at work in the world and lifting up those in need.

Being mindful and prayerful may have unexpected consequences. As you ponder on what your fast might be, you might be moved to think about the global food production system and make significant changes to your diet.

As you look at the plight of many in the world, you may be moved to take an action that is within your skill set. As you intentionally make God more fully present in your life, you may find that knowing that God is by your side may forever change for you the meaning of a life lived to the full.

Today, we remember that we are dust and to dust we will return.

Is there a difference between this and that dust? No, dust becomes indistinguishable. What is significant is what happens before we return there. Everyday is a new opportunity for each of us to blaze a bright flame until we are called back.

Take this time, this moment, and shine in the world.

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