A sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on Ash Wednesday. Readings 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10 and John 8.1-11.
‘We are treated as imposters, and yet are true’ (2 Corinthians 6.8)
+ In nomine Patris…
I have recently been reading a fascinating book about narcissism. In it the psychologist authors describe the features of narcissism in individuals, including Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and narcissism in society.
The term ‘narcissism’ derives from the Greek mythical figure Narcissus who set out, a bit like us all, looking for someone to love. The beautiful nymph Echo fell in love with him and repeated his every word, but he rejected her and she faded away. Narcissus kept on looking for love and companionship, and one day, as he gazed into a pool, he saw the face that he would fall in love with: his own! He was so engrossed in his own beauty that he was stuck by the pool, lost the will to live and died.
In contemporary terms a narcissist is someone who thinks that they are superior to everyone else - ability, status, good looks, intelligence and creativity - even if they’re actually not. Narcissism is corrosive for individuals.
It’s also bad for society. The book I’ve been reading says is that through narcissism we become phony:
We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy ($11 trillion of government debt)… and phony friends (with the social networking explosion).
Clearly not everyone is a narcissist and whilst there are damaging features of society it’s not thoroughly rotten. But to sketch out the extreme helps us to situate our own self-regard, or lack of, in the context of Ash Wednesday and this beautiful season of Lent.
Lent takes us back to a pool, but not one where we gaze longingly upon our own image but upon the face of Jesus Christ. In the baptismal pool Jesus calls to us lovingly: he is the one who loves us before we even seek the love that only he can give. His love draws us into the love of the eternal Trinity. Lent is a time when his call to us and claim upon our love is renewed and heard afresh, lest he becomes to us like Echo was to Narcissus.
That call to Christ’s love on Ash Wednesday, and in Lent, is back to that first love - in its joy-filled disciplines - where we attend to body, mind and spirit: for our body, in disciplines around self-denial and fasting; for our minds, being stretched through reading and pondering; for our spirits, through re-engaging in our life of prayer.
Lent, which begins today, is the time of the Church year that invites us away from our phony selves and takes us back to who we truly are. We construct much of our own identities and want others, and ourselves, to believe it. The greatest danger is when we ourselves believe the myths about ourselves.
It’s not just about being narcissists and believing ourselves to be all-important, invincible and at the centre. All too often we believe the negative narrative of ourselves, summed up in phrases like, ‘I’m not really very good at this’ or we feel ourselves to be a fraud, on the brink of being exposed as useless, inadequate or unlovable. As Bernard of Clairvaux warned, in the 12th century, ‘Sorrow for sin is indeed necessary, but it should not involve endless self-preoccupation. You dwell also on the glad remembrance of the loving kindness of God’.
Ash Wednesday holds before us the phoniness of our lives – the over-exalted and over-negative bits -and places upon us, literally, and ‘in your face’ the reality of where we come from and who we are. It encourages us to dwell on the ‘glad remembrance of the loving kindness of God’
As the cross is marked in ash on your head you hear these words, ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’. In the face of all we construct about ourselves and our identity - unrealistically good or unrealistically bad - we are reminded of our mortality, that we will die. We are not immortal, but turning away from sin and being faithful to Christ is the starting point and destination of finding ourselves, our loves and passions: Christ loved us first; we can find our assurance and identity in that love, a love that sees beyond self-preoccupation, either in the form of over-inflated egos or self-deprecation, and sees us as we are and as we can be.
This is the Christ who judges without retribution and with mercy. ‘Miserere me, Domine’ - Have mercy on me, O Lord - is not, for us, a desperate plea but, because of Christ, a confident declaration. This is in complete contrast to the crowd that gathered in judgement to stone the woman caught in adultery. They could not bear the threat that she represented to their sensibilities and supposed perfection: something that they could not claim, as became apparent. They were acting narcissistically and saw no need for mercy. Rather than live with her less-than-perfection they would rather lynch her than forgive her.
In the face of their rampant and violent perfectionism Jesus wrote in the dust of the ground. We are dust, we are less than perfect; but therein lies God’s mercy and capacity, in Christ, to raise us up from the dust, breathe new life into our nostrils and form and re-form us in his image and likeness. Christ writes his love and life into our hearts: destination, Easter.
Is that possible? Can he do it? Surely, we say, I am a phony Christian, I am a phony person, my life a sham, I am an imposter waiting to be found out, just daring to call myself a Christian.
As sons and daughters of God we might well feel like imposters, and yet, Paul reminds us, we are true. As he says elsewhere this is possible because, ‘it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2.20)
If nothing else this Lent, be assured that you are no imposter but as you seek to be faithful, to grow in holiness and to follow Christ you will be more truly yourself and more deeply human than the judgements, distortions and phoniness of the world can conceive.
That cross of ash marks you out as more yourself and not less; that you are someone who gazes into the face of Jesus Christ and knows that you are precious, valued and forgiven beyond measure simply because you are.
God loves you.
© Andrew Bishop 2016