Wednesday 14 February 2024

Ash Wednesday 2024


The Feast of Booths was one of the three great pilgrim festivals, where everyone who could went up to Jerusalem. One year, Jesus went in secret, knowing there would be people there looking to have him killed. For the first couple of days of the week-long festival, he kept a low profile, getting a feel for the mood. At some point in the middle of the week, he began to engage the crowd in Solomon’s Portico, which was a bit like Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. The clergy kept sending the [equivalent of the] churchwardens to evict him [use churchwardens’ wands as visual aid] but the crowds found him engaging, which made it too awkward.

One of the highlights of the festival was the water ceremony. Each morning during the Feast, the high priest would process to the Pool of Siloam and fill a golden pitcher with ‘living water’ from the spring that fed the pool [use baptismal jug as visual aid]. Then he would process back to the temple, where he would pour the water out into a bowl on the altar. Everybody would join the procession with joyful singing, and shout instructions to the high priest to ensure he didn’t get it wrong. One time, a high priest who didn’t approve of the ceremony, because it was a tradition from the Oral Law and not the written Law, deliberately spilled the water on the ground, and the crowd pelted him with lemons. [Fortunately, you used your lemons on your pancakes yesterday, so have none to pelt me with today.]

On the last day of the Feast, Jesus stood up and declared, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Again, the wardens tried and failed to remove him.

But the next day, there he was, back again, still at it. They hatch a hurried plan and bring before him a woman allegedly caught in the very act of committing adultery – you’d think that would take two, but there we are – and ask his judgement. Would he side against the Law given through Moses, which called for death by stoning, or against the Roman governor, who reserved for Rome the right to pass and act on the death penalty?

Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger [bend down, write]. When they kept pressing him, he straightened up and said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he bent down again and continued writing.

Wouldn’t you love to know what he wrote!?

We’re not told; but I think that the accusers, being expertly acquainted with the Law and the Prophets, knew just what he was doing. There’s a passage in the scroll of Jeremiah (chapter 17) that speaks of the sin of Judah, that will cost them their territory; of the deceit of the heart; and where the prophet cries to the Lord to save him from those who refuse to listen and seek to shame him. And in the middle of the passage, we read:

‘O hope of Israel! O Lord! All who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be recorded in the ground, for they have forsaken the fountain of living water, the Lord.’ (Jeremiah 17.13)

“What on earth is he playing at?”

“He’s evoking the prophecy of Jeremiah against us. Naming this woman ‘Judah’ – naming her as ourselves. If we stone her, we will be enacting G-d’s judgement on us all.”

As the prophets do again and again, Jesus deconstructs our understanding of how to live faithful lives according to the Law. Condemnation is cancelled, and the woman is now free to live fully restored within the community of the faithful, a community of hope and healing.

And what of us? Where do we find ourselves in the story?

Perhaps we are scribes and Pharisees. How often do those we consider rejected by God expose the very sin within us that offends the Lord!?

Perhaps we are the woman. Do we believe we have no place at the table? Do we burn with shame, having internalised the message that we are not acceptable?

Perhaps we are called to be Jesus, to one another. To model trust in God and hold out hope.

I’d like to conclude with a poem I wrote this morning:

You have heard it said that you are too little, or too much, to be accepted;
and, taking those words to heart, you have been consumed by their flames.

You have heard it said that you are more deserving than others;
and, internalising that mantra, you have been razed by its fire.

But I say to you, rise up:
by the grace of God
arise from the ashes,
O Phoenix,
dust stirred to life by the kiss of love,
by the breath of God
that gives life to the dead.

You are the phoenix of Christ,
given new beginning in his name.
Neither too little nor too much,
nor deserving nor undeserving,
simply loved to life,
again and again.

Do not fear returning to dust.
Receive this mark upon your head,
a sign of hope, and trust.
And by the grace of God,


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