Death, failure, oppression and hope in Lent

By Savi Hensman
March 9, 2019

Mortality, weakness, poverty and oppression – the Ash Wednesday service throws light on what is wrong in the world and ourselves. Yet I left Southwark Cathedral a few days ago feeling lighter and with renewed hope. Perhaps ancient tradition has something to offer to those striving for justice and peace.

To break every yoke

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent, which many churches observe. This remembers Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness before he begins to share his message of God’s commonwealth on earth. In the end this brings him into confrontation with the state and religious authorities and he is put to death – though, in Christian tradition, he rises again, witness to a love which cannot be defeated.

When I took part in the morning service in the beautiful surroundings of Southwark Cathedral this year, with a diverse set of fellow-worshippers, readings included Isaiah 58.1-12. This was familiar yet startling, especially just outside the centre of wealth and power in the City of London, where indeed another cathedral is sited.

This attacks a form of religion which masks exploitation of workers and quarrelsome selfishness. In contrast, God calls for a fast:

to loose the bonds of injustice…
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke

as well as sharing food and housing with the poor. With this comes the promise of collective healing and the chance to become “the repairer of the breach” and “restorer of streets to live in.”

Politics and caring are here intertwined and listeners, I think, encouraged to uncover the often-hidden relationships which give power and privilege to some, while others suffer. This includes admitting our own part in what is wrong.

The South Bank, where I was worshipping, may seem more ‘arty’ than the financial district on the other side of London Bridge. Yet it has its share of big business and the arts too often portray the way the world is as acceptable or inevitable. The educational sector (in which I now work), other public services and even charities can be sucked in too, as we can as individuals.

Even great churches were often built through oppressing ordinary people and faith communities may remain entangled with injustice and sometimes violence.

The Gospel reading which followed, Matthew 6.1-6,16-21, part of the Sermon on the Mount, was an invitation to live by different values, so that the quest for social approval and for security through wealth no longer have such a grip. The realm of freedom can be costly but also rich in possibilities.

Made from dust, touched by the Divine

I, and the others there, then had the sign of the cross marked in ash on our foreheads, as we were told:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Yet this reminder that I am mortal and fallible, like everyone else, was not depressing but liberating. In some circles, among people sincerely seeking a better world, there is pressure either to project badness on to others or blame, even despise oneself. There can also be a fear of admitting that none of us have all the answers.

In addition, as the environment faces serious damage, being reminded that we humans are creatures of the earth and vulnerable like other species may be helpful.

Divine love is not only for the super-holy, politically aware or most oppressed and there is no need to compete about these, though the habit of competitiveness can be hard to break. Communion followed, with its sense of being nurtured and fed as well as of eating at a shared table, a reminder of a time to come when all barriers will be broken down.

The hope that we – along with our communities, nations. faith groups and earth – can be part of a radically different network of relationships may at times be difficult and even seem foolish. Yet the dream is rooted not in a pretence that all will be easy or that a ‘vanguard’ has all the answers but rather in a recognition of weakness and in experience: remarkable things do happen.

If Christians (and other people of faith) are ready to delve deeply into the more startling aspects of our tradition, we may have treasures to share, as well as much to learn from people who are not ‘religious’ in any obvious sense. Lent can be a time not only of discipline but also joy and letting go of false expectations, so that we are free to move towards a space of freedom and love for all.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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