It’s not mess…
There was an advert a few years ago for Persil automatic. It was on TV and on billboards everywhere, so most of you will probably have seen it. It features a film of children happily painting a wall in splashes of multicoloured paint. Inevitably, more of the paint gets on their clothes, their hands and faces, and on each other, than on the wall. The captions read “It’s not mess, it’s creativity, it’s not mess it’s learning,” and so on.
An Ash Wednesday service is a messy one: it involves marking our foreheads with the sign of the cross in a very messy mixture of ash and oil. This service is messy because we are: sin is a messy business, and the ash reminds us of all the mess that we make of our own lives, of other people’s lives and of this world. If a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, then the ash cross is the reverse: an outwards and visible sign of an inward and invisible lack of grace. We sign ourselves with this messy mix of ash and oil because all of us are in a mess. It helps us be honest about the disparity between what we appear to be and what we feel we are. Many of us may sometimes feel uncomfortable with the respect that people give us – that we don’t quite match up to the person people think we are – the person we want to be. When people praise us we may feel, ‘if only they knew…’ So the cross of ash helps us reconcile the person we feel we are with the person that others see. It helps us remember that God sees us as we are – the good stuff and the not so good stuff – and he still loves us, even having seen the truth. Lent is a time for us to learn to see ourselves just as God does: as beloved sinners.
But the washing powder advert puts an altogether more positive slant on mess, which is worth exploring.
One of the captions reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s creativity’.
When we receive the ash cross on our forehead, we hear the words, ‘remember that you are dust’. And so with the ash perhaps we can recall that wonderful picture of God’s creativity in Genesis 2, lovingly molding the earth into human beings, and breathing life into what was dry and lifeless. And so as we receive the ash on our foreheads we can give thanks that God can still breathe new life into us even in the dirt and dust and deathliness of our sin.
One of the key themes of Love Life Live Lent is being creative and imaginative – whether that’s making cakes and sharing them or trying something you’ve never done before: when we do so, we reflect something of our creator God, and we give a little bit of life to the world as well as becoming a little more alive ourselves.
Another of the captions reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s pride’. Pride is perhaps not quite the right word. But the sign of the cross that we carry is certainly not something that we are ashamed of. At our baptism, Christ claimed us as his own, and so we are glad to be marked with his sign of the cross. Because Jesus took the shame of death on a cross and transformed it into hope and victory, he can also transform the shame of our sinfulness into the triumph over it.
Many of the Love Live Live Lent actions are also about our own identity as human beings and as beloved children of God; learning to be ourselves, making the most of who we are, and giving thanks for the way that we have been blessed – even if it’s just for the food we eat.
The TV advert ends with one of the children accidentally on purpose painting another’s nose – at first she looks cross, but then starts to smile. The caption reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s forgiveness’. When we have the sign of the cross on our foreheads, we are a walking testimony to the fact that everyone can be forgiven.
Again, within Love Life Live Lent there are actions that bring real peace and reconciliation – between us and other people, and between humanity and the earth. Ash Wednesday’s action is to say sorry for something we have done wrong: it may be enough simply to say sorry to God, or it may be that there are others who need to hear it too, and we may also need to acknowledge and repent of the harm we’ve done to ourselves, for sin has a habit of harming the sinner, too.
We are messy people. The messes we make in our lives are real messes. They are dark and dirty, and if left unchecked they will be the death of us. And God does not condone our mess. It is not that God does not mind about sin – on the contrary, it grieves him that we hurt and abuse ourselves and others, that we deface and corrupt the very air, water and land of this world he has given us. We take heart, and take courage, because we believe in a God who already knows the secrets of our hearts.
Guilt is a prison with sin as the bars, trapping us inside our past mistakes, but true repentance allows us to receive the forgiveness that God always offers, and it may even start to rebuild relationships that we had given up on. Forgiveness is just as real as sin – and indeed is stronger. Life is stronger than death, light is stronger than darkness, and love is stronger than hate.
The actions in LLLL are all about the triumph of life over death, of light over darkness, of love over hatred. Just as sin harms the sinner, so random acts of kindness, creativity and love can help repair the wounds on the soul. This Lent, let us ask God to breathe life into our dust, that we may live lives of love, for our own sake, for each other’s sake, and for the sake of God’s world.