Have any of you read the book A Severe Mercy? It’s a classic of Christian devotion, written by a man named Sheldon Vanauken, a memoir about himself and his wife (known as “Davy”.) They met while at college in the late 1930’s, and the book is about their relationship, but more importantly about their conversion to Christianity. This took place in their late twenties, over a period of several years, and – as it happened - under the guidance of the great Christian writer C. S. Lewis, whom they had come to know. It’s a wonderfully told story of mature, intelligent young adults coming to understand the truth of Christian faith.
And then something happened. In the 1950’s (this is about two-thirds of the way through the book), Davy came down with what looked like the flu. She recovered, but continued to feel worn out, and her doctor put her through a battery of tests.
Now, in those days things were different. It was Vanauken, the husband, to whom the doctor gave the results of those tests; and it was very bad news. Davy had contracted a rare virus, it was attacking her liver, and she had no more than six months to live. And the question that immediately came up for Vanauken was, Do I tell her? Again, it was a different time. He immediately shared the news with those closest to them, asking for advice. His non-Christian friends urged him not to tell her, in consideration of her comfort during what life remained to her. His Christian friends – to a person – insisted that she be told the truth: as one of them put it, “If she is facing her Calvary, she needs to know.”
So Vanauken did, in very gentle but unmistakeable terms, tell her the truth. And the rest of the book is about how their Christian faith carried them through her final illness and death, and how that faith – for both of them – was deepened, and sharpened, in the process.
My family was in the same position in 1970, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, which at that time was pretty much a death sentence. And we didn’t tell her. She knew – she could tell from the way we were behaving around her – and we knew that she knew; but nobody said the words, ever, in the three years it took her to die. We were churchgoers, and considered ourselves Christians – of course! – but our faith was neither deep enough nor sharp enough for us to know we had to tell her the truth. I’d say that would have been true for most churchgoing Christians that we knew; maybe for most churchgoing Christians for centuries: look at the difference between the number of people in church on Easter Sunday, and on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday. Most people want to think about the good news, and not the bad news.
Well, I read a sermon recently by a pastor who mentioned the old line about death and taxes, and that what it really should say was that the only two things we can be sure of in this life are death, and the fact that while we’re alive we’re going to mess up. These are the truths we come to grips with on Ash Wednesday. This is one of my favorite days in the church year, because this is the day on which we look unflinchingly at these truths, which are the hardest truths there are in life, and which confront every single human being, whether they admit it or not. We look at them precisely because they are the truth, and we are a people who seek to know the truth, and speak it, and live it. Our faith is joyful, that is certain, but the good news is good news just because we live in the darkness which stalks us all.
We are here today, not out of masochism, but because to remind ourselves of our utter dependence on the love of God. We are here to deepen and sharpen our faith. This is part of our church practice, to be here on Ash Wednesday, part of our journey on the Christian way. And the paradox is that this is actually a day of hope; because today we see that’s what it all boils down to: stark, raw hope. The title of Vanauken’s book is a good description of this day: a severe mercy; this day of Ash Wednesday, when we take the first step, of these forty days, toward a destination we cannot see, trusting in God alone. And God is to be trusted. Amen.