Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2021

Sermon preached by Revd Karen Charman for Ash Wednesday, 17th February 2021, via Zoom.

You can listen to an audio recording here.

I invite you to cast your minds back, if you can, to Shrove Tuesday, last year.  In the morning, some of us gathered together in the Horspath Hub.  It was a hub of activity, as various people arrived with pancakes they’d made at home, ready to be warmed up and served.  A photographer arrived to take some photographs – here’s a rather splendid one of me (I think the pancake landed on the floor!) and, somewhere, I have another of Anna – whose pancake landed perfectly back in the pan, if I remember rightly!

We had a wonderful time, sharing the Godly Play story of the circle of the church year, then pupils from Horspath Primary School sat at tables with some of the older residents of the village, and enjoyed pancakes and conversation.  It seems like a lifetime ago now!

Elsewhere in the Benefice, we were making plans for a Lenten pilgrimage to Christ Church Cathedral – a walk along the Thames, Evensong in the Cathedral, then, perhaps, tea in the Deanery.  2020 had, of course, been designated a Year of Pilgrimage and a Year of Cathedrals – and all 42 English Cathedrals had agreed to join together to celebrate, and to hold events aimed at bringing more people closer to God.

“Bringing more people closer to God.”

Drawing closer to God is – I believe – what we should aim for in Lent.  As the introduction to this service reminded us, Lent is traditionally a season for, “self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.”

For some people though – and particularly at a time when most of us have already given up, or been denied, so many of the things we treasure, and which help us to live well – physical contact and touch, hugging, spending time with family members and friends, vacations, day-trips, trips to the theatre, concerts, singing, celebrations … for some people, self-examination, repentance, fasting, and self-denial this Lent won’t necessarily bring us closer to God.

Ignatius of Loyola wrote about his experiences of isolation – firstly convalescing after an injury, and then a second, voluntary, period of isolation in a cave in Manresa, near Barcelona – and wrote about his experiences of both ‘consolation’ and ‘desolation.’  ‘Consolation’ may involve an experience of being profoundly moved by the love of God; it leads to an increase in faith, hope and charity (or love); it draws us towards heavenly things, and leaves us quiet and at peace in God.  “Desolation is the opposite of consolation.  Its typical features are ‘darkness and disturbance’ of spirit, anxiety arising from agitations and temptations, leading to a lack of confidence, and a weakening or loss of hope and love …”[1]  “Consolation tends to increase [our] confidence in God, hope, and generous love of God and neighbour.”  It draws us closer to God.  “Desolation, on the other hand … is potentially destructive.  It tends to weaken or destroy faith, hope and love … and … has the potential to involve us in a downward spiral of bitterness, cynicism and despair.”[2]

If – as I believe – Lent is a season for drawing closer to God, then we should seek ‘consolation’, and avoid ‘desolation.’.  We should pursue those activities and interests which lead us towards God, and avoid those activities which might draw us away from God.  If fasting, or giving up chocolate, makes you depressed and irritable, and hunger distracts you from prayer and Bible reading, then I would suggest that fasting, or giving up chocolate, might not be the best spiritual practice to help you draw closer to God this Lent!

Pilgrimages have long been seen as a way of drawing closer to God, and I’d like you to consider, today, whether and how you might make this Lent a pilgrimage – how you might walk with Jesus, as you journey through Lent, towards the cross and, beyond, to the empty tomb.

Now, I’m not suggesting you hop on a plane and fly to Israel.  I’m not suggesting you break lockdown.  I know we’re only permitted to leave our homes for specific reasons – and there’s uncertainty as to how far we may wander on our daily exercise.

Last year, during the first lockdown, one of my friends did a virtual run, walk and bike ride from Land’s End to John o’ Groats.  Without straying more than a few miles from home, she ran, walked and cycled 1,083 virtual miles from one end of the UK to the other.  As she travelled, she sent me, and other friends, virtual postcards – via WhatsApp – from some of the destinations she passed through.  We worked out when she’d reach Oxford, and joked about meeting up for a meal.  When she reached her target of 1,000+ miles, she received a medal.

An internet search quickly reveals that you can complete a virtual pilgrimage along the famous pilgrim route, the Camino de Santiago – 480 miles along the pilgrims’ ways through northern Spain to the shrine of St James the apostle in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.  The same company – Conqueror – offers other virtual pilgrimages:

  • St Francis’ Way – 312 virtual miles from Florence to the Vatican

and challenges:

  • The English Channel – 21 miles
  • Inca Trail – 26 miles
  • Mount Everest – 40 miles

for example.

Many Christian organisations were quick to follow this trend last year, and you can now visit the Holy Land, Lourdes, the Vatican, the Hagia Sophia, Westminster Abbey and many other sacred spaces on a virtual tour or pilgrimage.

Someone I know is currently enjoying a virtual trip around the world, posting regular updates on Facebook of the airlines he’s flown on, cities and hotels he’s stayed in, restaurants he’s dined in, and meals he’s enjoyed – all from the comfort and safety of his own home.

I wonder, how can we emulate these examples, to enjoy our own pilgrimage, during this second Lent in Lockdown?

Well, firstly, if our desire or intention is to draw closer to God, and to walk with Jesus, we might begin by casting our minds back to the times and places where we have felt closest to God.  Where and when have you encountered Jesus?  Cast your mind back … perhaps, later, look through photo albums and journals, and identify your own ‘thin’ places, or sacred spaces – places where you’ve encountered God in the past.  If you’re fortunate, you might even identify places nearby, that you can re-visit safely, without breaking lockdown regulations.

But, for many of us, there’ll be places we can only re-visit in our memories, in our mind’s eye.  Spend time, this Lent, re-acquainting yourself with those places of encounter.  Look back at old photos.  Imagine yourself there, walking and talking with Jesus.

Perhaps you could find out the distance, from Oxford, to your sacred sites.  Can you undertake to physically travel that distance this Lent – either on walks around your village and the surrounding fields or, perhaps, on a treadmill or exercise bike?  Can you visit the place virtually, looking at pictures, or joining a tour, on the internet? 

Or perhaps you’d like to visit somewhere you’ve not yet been?  The Holy Land, perhaps, or Assisi?  Lourdes, or Taizé? 

Perhaps – and I think I might do this – perhaps you could read slowly through one of the Gospels – Mark perhaps – with a map and an encyclopaedia – or your tablet – beside you.  Find the location of each place that is mentioned, look up pictures, and then imagine yourself there, in each scene, as part of the crowd, or as a disciple of Jesus.  Walk with him beside the Jordan river, as he is baptised.  Go down into the water with him.  See the Holy Spirit descend like a dove, then go with Jesus out into the wilderness.  Walk with him by the Sea of Galilee, as he calls the fishermen.  Journey with him to Capernaum, into the home of Simon and Andrew … on to the synagogue … Cross, with him, to the other side of the lake, and walk with him as he goes up on the mountain to pray.  As Lent progresses, you’ll find yourself walking with Jesus towards Jerusalem … through Jericho, to Bethany … up the Mount of Olives and – perhaps on Palm Sunday itself – if you read slowly – into Jerusalem for the events of Holy Week … the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, and the Garden of Gethsemane; on Good Friday, to Golgotha and the Cross.  Experience the emptiness and immobility of the Sabbath … then journey with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, as they bring their spices to the tomb, early on the first day of the week….

Wherever you choose to walk, whatever you choose to do for your Lenten observance this year, I encourage you to seek consolation, not desolation – to pursue those things which will help you to draw closer to God.

I’d like to close with some words from our gradual hymn:

          “In simple trust like theirs who heard,

          beside the Syrian sea,

the gracious calling of the Lord,

let us, like them, without a word,

rise up and follow thee,

rise up and follow thee.”

Let’s not be bowed down in desolation, this Lent, but let us rise up and follow Jesus, as he journeys to Jerusalem, to the cross, and to the empty tomb.


[1] ‘Prayer and discernment in lockdown’ article by David Lonsdale, posted on 24 May 2020, at

[2] All from same article, by David Lonsdale