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Ash Wednesday 2021

A Reflection for Ash Wednesday

Fr Steven Young, 17 February 2021

Picture a person whom you know to be holy. Not someone who thinks they are holy, or wants to be seen as holy, but someone who actually is, holy. I doubt the person you are thinking of is a religious leader. Holy people tend not to have titles like, “The Reverend”.

The holy people I’ve met usually have some area of their life that separates them from what used to be called “polite society”. Holy people seldom occupy positions of power or great responsibility. They are not “renowned” or highly esteemed. Few speak well of them. Their actions are not widely known and their voices are seldom heard.

What differentiates truly holy people from even the most adroit impostor is that holy people are never actually conscious of their holiness. When a cult of holiness develops around a person and that person starts to believe their own hype, any holiness they might have had diminishes.

Holy people do not think to themselves;

“Oh, I will do that kind thing for such and such because it is a holy thing to do.” They just do it.

And as they are doing the kind action they do not think to themselves. “I am such a holy person for doing this. I wonder how I’ll be rewarded.” Holy people do not consciously pursue a warm fuzzy glow of self-satisfaction.

A truly holy person does not feel a need to tell anyone about what they’ve done.

Nor do holy people compare themselves to others either favourably or unfavourably. They do not shame or berate those who act or think differently to themselves. Holy people do not think they know better (or worse) than others and demand that you agree with them and "like" what they have to say.

And yeah. Holy people don’t post their own sermons on the internet.

In Jesus’ words, holy people “do not let their left hand know what their right hand is doing.”

At the centre of Christ’s teaching is a call to awakening, a call to consciousness; an awareness that we can step out of the stream of thinking and become alive to the being of Christ within us. Jesus taught us that we can be present to God. Here. Now.

Our true treasure is found in our identity as children of God, within whom Christ dwells. Christ is within us no matter who we are, where we go, what we do or what we think. No rust can consume and no thief can break in and steal. No circumstance, thought or action can ever alter the divine reality of the indwelling Christ uniting us as one body with all humanity and all creation.

Christ’s mission is manumission. He frees us from the slavery of self-consciousness. Jesus challenges the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are. “I am a saint.” “I am a sinner.” Exposing the ridiculous comparisons we make between ourselves and others. “I thank you, God, that I am not greedy, dishonest, or an adulterer, like everyone else. I thank you that I am not like that tax collector over there.”

It is strange paradox of discipleship that our self-conscious desire to turn away from sin can cause us to become more entwined in the stream of thinking that puts us in this state in the first place. Thankfully, tomorrow's liturgy for Ash Wednesday provides us with an opportunity to awaken out of self-coconscious states into the consciousness presence of Christ.

In the Liturgy of Penitence we collectively list all our wrong doings; we have not loved God with our whole heart, and mind, and strength, we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves, we have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven etc. In total we list twenty-six categories of sin. The most comprehensive act of corporate penitence in the entire church’s year. Our acknowledgment of the sin that harms our relationship with God, creation, other humans and ourselves is immediately followed by the imposition of ashes. The imposition of ashes is a sign of penitence and a symbol of mortality. It is a reminder that by God’s grace alone we receive eternal life.

The imposition of ashes is the ultimate antidote to self-consciousness. Just at the very point that we could become totally entwined to our story of sin we let go of our story. We remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. All the things we have been telling ourselves in our mind. The things we have been telling other people, our friends, our co-workers, our ex, about ourselves. The stories of what people did to us or what we shouldn’t have done, or failed to do, we now corporately say these things to God. And then we let go of them. We give this story to God. We do not allow the story our minds tell us about ourselves to continue to define us. We remember that we are more than this story. By grace alone we are freed from self. Grace alone remains when all else it returns to dust.

At this point I usually balk. “Gimme back ‘My Story’”! “I need it!” “Who am I without my story?” “I can’t let go of it. I need to think about it some more.” “I need to think about what people have done to me or what I have done to others.” And so I am in ever present danger of taking my story back until it resumes its habitual place of mental noise and yet again I become so used to hearing my story that I do not even realise it is there. My identification with my story means I get triggered so easily. Mr "Reaction". Mr "Take Offence". Mr "Hurt You The Way You Hurt Me" is back in town.

We need to hand over to God the little story we tell ourselves about ourselves every day in the mind. The "I am better than him" story. The "I am worse than her" story . The "I’m Prettier" story. The "Maybe I'm Not Enough" story. All these stories are about reinforcing an ego that you do not need if you recognise that everything ultimately turns to dust and you put your faith in grace alone.

If you have recognised that you have these thoughts you already have the ability chose to step out of thought. You do not have to follow every thought. Stepping out of thought is a necessary and much underrated spiritual discipline, particularly in the Christian West. Over identification with thought; believing that we are no more than our thoughts, is the root of all pride, shame and sin itself. The belief that our thoughts define us is the ultimate deception. Grace, and grace alone defines us.

The journey of discipleship and indeed of all humanity is a journey toward greater conscious awareness of the dimension of being within us and that our thoughts do not define who we are. Thankfully, stepping out of thought is relatively easy to do! It is does not require fancy equipment or going to some far off place or buying anything.

You can choose to spend certain periods of time, once or twice a day when you sit down, close your eyes and instead of involuntarily being drawn into the continuous stream of thinking, you have a technique or method where you focus your attention on one thing, which could be a mantra that you repeat, or it could be your breathing, it could be the inner feeling in your body, the sense of aliveness that pervades your body. In other words, you take attention away from thinking and that is already a great realisation that you are able, you have a choice of directing attention, you don’t have to go with your attention all the time where the habitual thought patterns want you to go, the habitual thought patterns that want you attention every time, every thought says, “I matter, give me your attention. Follow me. Go this way.” And another negative thought and another one. You can chose to step out.

You can choose to rest in a source of power in you that transcends the person, a power that exists within you that is Christ not self, a power that remains when all else turns to dust. Or you can put your trust in “dust power”. Egoic power. Thinking power. Self-defining power. My Rolex is bigger than your Rolex power. My Bible is floppier than your Bible” power.

Christ offers us a release for these futile games of self-confidence and self-shame which both stem from the same egoic fear that without all that we think defines us, we might not be enough. Ultimately, this is a fear that God’s grace isn’t enough. That we must do something, be something, think we are something more than trust in this grace alone.

This Lent why not give up your story of being better than or worse than anyone else? Why not choose to give up thinking for a few moments every day? Stop thinking about the past or the future and just allow yourself to be fully present now. Stop comparing. Stop analysing and be here now by grace alone.

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