When the planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 11th Sept 2001, Rowan Williams, soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury, was in Trinity Church, Wall St, just a couple of minutes’ walk away. He witnessed first-hand the destruction, death and dust all around. But, as George W Bush within hours of the attacks was already talking the language of ‘consequences’ (by which he meant ‘counter-attacks’) and a ‘war on terror’ (by which he meant more violence, destruction and death), Rowan Williams sensed the need for a ‘breathing space’. Some months later, he wrote a little book called Writing in the Dust, with some brief reflections that emerged from that ‘breathing space’:
“in that space there is the possibility of recognising that we have had an experience that is not just a nightmarish insult to us but a door into the suffering of countless other innocents, a suffering that is more or less routine for them in their less regularly protected environments. And in the face of extreme dread, we may become conscious, as people often do, of two very fundamental choices. We can cling harder and harder to the rock of our threatened identity – a choice, finally, for self-delusion over truth; or we can accept that we shall have no ultimate choice but to let go, and in that letting go, give room to what’s there around us – to the sheer impression of the moment, to the need of the person next to you, to the fear that needs to be looked at, acknowledged / and calmed (not denied). If that happens, the heart has room for many strangers, near and far. There is a global hospitality possible too in the presence of death.”
I was reminded of these reflections last week, on Ash Wednesday, as we began the journey of Lent with the story of ‘the woman caught in adultery’, in John chapter 8 (verses 1-11). It’s a heated moment, with an angry mob dragging the accused woman before Jesus, and reminding him (as if he needed to know) that the Law stated she should be stoned to death. Jesus knows they will seize on his response, whichever way he chooses to act. But Jesus, rather than entering into the heat of the moment, bends down and writes in the dust. We don’t know what he writes, but we do know that in doing so he refuses the quick response, he creates a ‘breathing space’, a pause, which allows some of the heat of the moment to dissipate. And then he responds to their demands with an invitation: ‘let the one of you who is without sin cast the first stone’. The question shifts the focus of attention, from the finger-pointing at the woman, to the accusers themselves. And one by one, they all walk away.
Just before our morning service in Hodge Hill on Ash Wednesday, I was painting the garden shed that had just taken up residence in the grounds of Birmingham Cathedral, the ‘Hunger Hut’, which will, throughout Lent, be a place of information and awareness-raising, a place of conversation and prayer, and a place where people can share their stories and pledge their commitments to act, on the desperate issue of food poverty in the UK, where half a million people last year were forced to use Food Banks to feed themselves and their families, and where 5,500 people last year were admitted to hospital suffering from malnutrition.
My hands, when I turned up at the eucharist, were covered in grey and orange paint. There is an old tradition, in parts of the Church of England, that the priest washes his or her hands before leading the Eucharistic Prayer. It’s partly simply a hygiene thing, of course, touching bread that will soon be eaten. But it also comes, I think, out of a concern for a ‘theological hygiene’: a belief that the priest, before touching ‘holy things’ needs to have ‘clean hands and a pure heart’ (Psalm 24:4). As a priest, I have resisted this tradition, more or less intentionally. Nowadays, I think I’m clearer about why. I try to operate an ‘all or nothing’ (or ‘everyone or no one’) policy instead: sometimes, we will all wash our hands, in our prayers of penitence, as the broken body of Christ (the church), before together we touch and consume the broken body of Christ (the bread). But often, we don’t all get a chance to wash our hands, so I’m not sure I should either – at least, not in a ritualised way. It’s particularly clear on Ash Wednesday, when we are all smudged with black, oily, ashy crosses. But each and every time we come to the table, to the eucharist we celebrate together, we all come with dirty hands. Partly because we have deliberately got our hands dirty in the life of the world. Partly because we are fallible, broken human beings and we can’t help ourselves. ‘Let the one of you who is without sin cast the first stone.’
So Ash Wednesday, unfolding into the rest of Lent, offers us a ‘breathing space’. A space in which we can begin to leave behind our knee-jerk tendencies to point the finger of blame at others. A space where we discover that we all come with dirty hands – and in so doing, are able to begin to discover a real solidarity with one another, with our friends, neighbours, and even enemies. And a space where, despite our dirty hands, we are not condemned, but touched with God’s love; where we are given, into our dirty hands, the broken, healing body of Christ.