Lenten Wisdom in Verse – Ash Wednesday

Each year, in addition to fasting during Lent, I try to take on the habit of reading from a handful of edifying works each day. Here are some of the things that I will be reading and meditating on this Lenten season:

  • Encounters with Silence by Karl Rahner
  • The Lord’s Prayer by Alexander Schmemann
  • On the Priesthood by St. John Chrysostom (also in preparation for my impending ordination to the Diaconate)
  • Acedia: Enemy of Spiritual Joy by Jean-Charles Nault (a paper)

Last year as well I ran a near-daily series on this blog entitled Lenten Wisdom from the Desert through which I shared a quote from the Desert Fathers each day, sometimes with my commentary and sometimes not. Last Spring was a very busy time for me and my posts were abruptly cut short when my father died very suddenly and unexpectedly, I never finished the series.

I noted in that post from last year that the sayings of the Desert Fathers were being sent to one of the church communities where I am involved each day and I was merely sharing them here. This year it is not sayings of the Fathers being shared, but poetry. Sometimes the poems will be by members of our community but most often not.

The first poem I share in this series is one written by Malcolm Guite. Included below the poem are some of Guite’s own meditations on Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday

Receive this cross of ash upon your brow,
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross.
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands
The very stones themselves would shout and sing
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their Lord and king.

He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please,
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.

It is a curious thing that we should use ash as a sign of repentance and renewal; surely it is nothing but the detritus of destruction!  And yet it is so much more.  The origins of the Ash Wednesday ash lie, of course, deep in the Bible, especially in all those Old Testament passages that speak of ‘repenting in dust and ashes’. Sprinkling ashes on one’s head was a sign of mourning and grief – the opposite of the oil of gladness – and went with ‘rending’ one’s garments, a rejection of all those sleek tricks of self-presentation with which we seek to disguise our true selves from God and from others.  And there is wisdom in that.  I sometimes wonder whether instead of a ritual ‘ashing’ we shouldn’t use Ash Wednesday as a day to rebel against our culture’s obsessive concern with body image, presentation, clothing and appearance.  Fashion models could be encouraged to dress as dowdily as possible, and we could all be invited  to eschew the pressures of those ‘photo-shopped’ images of the impossibly thin and glamorous, resting instead on the inner beauty of simply being loved, at last, and in spite of all, by the maker of the cosmos.  But there is deeper wisdom still in the tradition of ashing.  For the ash that is left after purging fires is itself a fertilizer, a life-enabler, a source of new growth; we place these unpromising leavings on the garden and new things bloom.  The cross of ash becomes a deeper symbol still, for what is destroyed in that emblem of all our destructiveness id sin itself.  In a daring and beautiful creative reversal, God takes the worst we can do to him and turns it into the very best he can do for us.
In our own days of ecological crisis, the ash has perhaps acquired another layer of symbolic truth.  As I set about the traditional task of burning the remnants of Palm Sunday’s palm crosses in order to make the ash that will bless and sign our repentance on Ash Wednesday, I was suddenly struck by the way both the fire and the ash were signs not only of our personal mortality and our need for repentance and renewal but also of the wider destruction our sinfulness inflicts upon God’s world and on our fellow creatures, on the whole web of life into which God has woven us and for which he also cares.  Some of those themes are visited in today’s sonnet above.

Please join me in praying through these poems each day through Lent.

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