Fr James Lyons
As a topic for his first letter to the world, Pope Benedict chose to write about God who is love. Many thought he might concentrate on aspects of worship or Church doctrine, calling believers to a stricter adherence to policy. But instead he wanted to speak of the God who first loved us, a love lavished on us and which we in turn must share with others.
In many respects this new Pope has lain down a greater challenge than if he had simply reiterated Church doctrine that was not being fully observed. For instance, he reminds us that, as St Paul observes, love never ends. Just as God is eternal, love is never finished and complete. Throughout life, it changes and matures, and thus remains faithful to itself. We need to be continually examining who and what I love, why I love, what motivates me to love or not to love. Not an easy task.
Our coming together tonight as two distinct Christian communities, brings us to face the consequences of love as well as its challenge.
Our Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions both adhere to the command of Jesus to love God and to love neighbour, which he reaffirms when he says to the apostles, Love one another as I have loved you.
When groups quarrel and separate they don’t stop loving, but their love is more inclined to be self-centred: each group’s pain at the separation, causes it to feel sorry for itself and hateful of the other group which it blames for the separation. Love of neighbour then becomes understood as referring to those on your side.
Pope Benedict points out that Jesus abolished this way of understanding neighbour with his Good Samaritan parable. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbour. We must apply this more and more, and with greater urgency, to our separated situation.
Anglicans and Roman Catholics need each other like two halves need to be whole. We are both needy, incomplete; we have never recovered from our separateness and, even today, do not fully appreciate that each of us is a neighbour in need.
Some wonderful things have happened in our relationship in the latter part of last century and much healing has taken place.
On the local scene, our coming together for this service each year is a tribute to acceptance and friendship that has increasingly characterised our communities especially over the last 20 years. Goodwill is in plentiful supply. We’ve made a great start.
The ashes we receive tonight remind us of our nothingness before God; that without God our lives are empty and barren.
Lives need God for they need love, and God is love. Let these ashes also remind us of our brokenness as a Church. Our incompleteness makes us counterfeit witnesses no matter how nice we may try to be towards one another.
We wear these ashes openly, publicly, but Jesus also asks us to wear them secretly, on our hearts, that they might transform our inner selves. Only then, with hearts and minds renewed, will we be able to fully recognise the God who is love within us – and thereby be able to make the transition to see this same God in others. Then obstacles to unity will fall away, and love will bring us home