In a parish I once knew, long ago, there was a splendid cabinet in the vestry. Made from fine timber, it was a large chest with many drawers – in which, liturgical vestments were stowed. It had been given in memory of their father by two members of the choir.
When I was present to lead worship on a Sunday I often spent time in the vestry before the liturgy began. On several occasions these members of the choir would voice concern about something to do with ‘father’s chest’. An alien object had been placed on the top; or a drawer was sticking out; on more than one occasion it appeared to have been moved an inch one way or the other. The cry would go up: ‘what have they done to father’s chest?’
Over time a question began to form in my mind. Had this object really been given? The continuing bonds of attachment seemed so great, so proprietary, that it was hard to think of this as a gift that was given free, unencumbered and without strings.
“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”.Matthew 6: 3-4 NRSV
On Ash Wednesday I think there is much to consider about giving and detachment. The ashes remind us that our physical life is temporary, and that all we own will one day be dust. More significantly, God gives Jesus without any sense or implication of ownership. Horrifically, human beings did with this gift what happens to far too many lives. Even on the cross and hearing the cry of despair, God is silent. This is a gift – a true gift, and therefore God can make no claim even on that desperate day we shall mark six weeks on Friday.
All out genuine acts of letting go echo something of this divine gift. If we give we can never claim ownership or, indeed, any greater interest than anyone else. Perhaps this is why gifts are so rare. In his poem ‘Walking Away’ C Day-Lewis reflects on the moment his young child disappears, momentarily, for the first time:
That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay
I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.