Sunday, 21 February 2021

A Homily for Ash Wednesday

Preached at St George's Cathedral, Cape Town, on Wednesday February 17, 2021:

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 51:1-17, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

May I speak in the name of God, who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

Every year, Ash Wednesday and Lent give us the opportunity to re-consider our dependence on God’s grace in transforming our lives for the better. This year our lives have been turned upside down so much that it is hard to focus on what it means to work to transform our lives for the better, other than praying for a quick roll-out of coronavirus vaccines. I am glad that the roll-out has started today in the country. 


I am occupied in my prayer life by vaccines, vaccines, vaccinations and population immunity and the need for equity in accessing vaccinations and in sharing know-how when it comes to providing the vaccination, as well as the need for providing multiple licences to countries that want to supply contextually relevant vaccines so that the ideal of global population vaccination is achieved, not at some foreseeable date in the future but urgently. 

But the size of the challenges that our worshipping communities, our places of work and our families are faced with as a result of the pandemic certainly underlines how totally dependent we are on God at this difficult time in our lives. 

Today's passage from Isaiah, written in captivity in Babylon, as well as the passage from Matthew, and the context in which we read them, remind us as never before the importance of discerning the times as we embark on our journey through Lent, Passiontide and to Easter.

Ash Wednesday and Lent this year invite us to dig deeper, to attempt to imitate the Holiness of God in our moral and ethical living within the context of the pandemic. As always – and perhaps as never before – it is a time for stock-taking, for deepening our faith, for repentance and renewal, and for focusing on God rather than seeking praise or affirmation for ourselves. 

Our efforts to fast and pray during Lent are important and necessary. But both of today's passages ask us not simply to reduce our consumption but rather pose deeper questions: to what end are we fasting and praying? They challenge us to stop being conceited. They call on us to put God first, and in South Africa today to speak up and speak out against exploitation, oppression and the inequality of opportunities, and then to do something about it.

To be more specific, the exploitation, oppression and inequality we are called to speak out against this Lent include in particular “Covid corruption” and Gender-Based Violence.

I am sure none of us need reminding about the need to condemn and oppose the disgraceful way in which people with no history of providing medical supplies, but with access to government tender-issuing processes, have exploited the human tragedy we are experiencing. If you told me during the struggle of the 1970s, the 1980s and the early 1990s that we would see victims of oppression descend to such depths of greed in the midst of the  biggest health crisis in a century, I would have laughed you out of this Cathedral. It truly has been shocking.

At the most recent meeting of our Church's Provincial Standing Committee, we declared Gender-Based Violence to be a centre of focus during this Lent. We committed ourselves to act and to forge strong partnerships to stop this violence. This is what Isaiah calls us to do, with Matthew charging us to find our true treasure.

However bad the coronavirus is, at least we know that in time this too shall pass. But Gender-Based Violence, as many people have observed before, is the  “hidden pandemic” of our times. It is a long-running disease which remains deeply embedded in our society and is going to take a lot of effort to root out. As part of the Province's declaration of Lent as a time to focus on this issue, a course for Lent 2021 entitled “Living Holy and Healthy Relationships” has been developed. It is available on the Church's website and I warmly commend it to you. 

This Lent, let us recommit ourselves to being restorers and repairs of human dignity as we strive for the common good. By including these eternal values into our daily lives, let us condemn violence against women and children with renewed vigour. Please pray without ceasing for the end of this second pandemic that has taken over our country. Just as we can overcome Covid-19, so too can we overcome this scourge if we dedicate as many resources, both spiritually and through collective action, to ending it.

Let us also re-dedicate ourselves to the struggle against greed, corruption and nepotism, to the struggle against the pursuit of narrow self-interest, personal gain, status, power hunger and material wealth – in short let us commit ourselves to the struggle for true justice, including economic justice. Put simply, I invite you to turn to Christ’s loving ways and become channels of His peace.

God loves you, and so do I. God bless South Africa. Amen.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba



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