My God father was a real man of the countryside who grew up in the Slad valley in Gloucestershire along with Laurie Lee, the author of Cider with Rosie, and they both had a real love of poetry. When he died I inherited some of his books and now and again I look through them and sometime ago I came across the poem ‘Ash Wednesday’ by TS Eliot.
In 1928, TS Eliot is contemplating becoming a Christian. He is apprehensive, and records his thoughts in the poem ‘Ash Wednesday’, asking that God’s judgment not rest too heavily upon him. He feels that he is not worthy of God’s love, and that the world is too unsettled, too noisy for a person to hear God. He refers to Our Lord as St John does, ‘the Word’, and writes, ‘Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled about the centre of the silent Word’.
The Word speaks in the silence of our hearts, when we are still and quiet. For nine months he prepares in Mary’s womb and, in the whispered prayers of the Eucharist, as the priest embraces the altar and we prepare for his arrival at the words of consecration, he sends before him a stillness. This quietude is the embrace of birth and new life, but also the silence of the grave, the rock that seals our Lord’s tomb while the moonlight cuts shadows across the door of the Holy Sepulchre. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. As Eliot puts it, this is the ‘desert in a garden’, a ‘dream crossed twilight between birth and dying’. Our Lord is risen, but he also carries with him always the marks of crucifixion.
We have begun the forty day Lenten journey and seek to identify with Jesus in his wilderness experience, but how do we understand things unless we have contrasts – joy with sorrow, noise with quiet, company with solitude? Each helps to define its mirror image. It can be very easy to make the mistake of regarding Lent as a gloomy miserable time. George Herbert three hundred years before Eliot was writing with irony when he wrote ‘Welcome dear feast of Lent, he loves not temperance or authority’.
Herbert’s use of the word feast is interesting and clever; it makes us sit up and take notice because the usual Lenten word is fast. And here lies the ingenious contrast. The Lenten fast is a feast for the soul—–Lent is about blessing, about walking closely with Jesus, about growing in spiritual maturity and depth. Such things are not a privation but a wonderful affirmation of faith.
Our yearly season of penitence, starting with the ritual of marking our foreheads with ash’ probably seems daft and pointless to those who have no understanding of the Christian faith.
But, in the context of faith in God, the Ash Wednesday ritual and the whole six weeks of Lent, it is an external sign of an inner decision to own up to our own sinful tendencies and a sign of our willingness to look at ourselves critically, and to rededicate ourselves to the values and the way of life of the gospel. Lent, in other words, is about repentance and about the way God changes us and makes us Holy.
In Joel Ch 1 drought had already spread death and despair. Locusts had removed the final vestiges of green, and with them any last lingering hope. A solemn assembly has been called in those drought stricken times to fast and offer sacrifice and pray for God’s mercy, but with this latest disaster, what was the point? The sentence of death was upon them.
The prophet’s message is that it is never too late to return to God. Yet fasting, weeping, tearing garments as a sign of mourning, all will be of no avail unless the people’s hearts are turned. In Hebrew the heart is the seat not only of emotions but of the mind and will, directing attitudes and actions. Forgiveness depends, ultimately, not on their fasting and sacrifice but on the gracious character of God; it is his grace and mercy, his patience and constant love, it is his desire to bless, not to punish,
When human beings turn away from God and do evil, the consequence in the economy of God is more evil rebounding upon them. Repent is more often used of God than of humankind, not because God changes his mind but because our relationship with him becomes changed. When we turn towards him, his justice comes to us as love not anger.
Lent has the tradition that we should give things up, eat and drink less than we usually do. Fasting has always played a part in all the major religious traditions; at the most basic level fasting lessens our attachment to our ordinary bodily appetite for food and drink and raises our awareness of spiritual hunger, our need for God. The practice of fasting challenges our modern preoccupation with food and eating, and I, probably like many others, will be a bit grumpy as my need and craving for anything sweet bites in.
But as we give up things so should we also take up – put more time aside to pray, to stimulate a desire for God rather than for the various substitutes that are available. The rushed, pressured way of life which people live today, filling every moment with activity and resenting solitude and quiet, all are hostile to inner calm, and prayer, and an awareness of God.
And lastly if we can, we should be more generous with our money and possessions, both to free ourselves from being dependent on money and possessions and to benefit people who are poor and struggling. Simplicity in relation to material things, freedom from compulsions to acquire and accumulate personal possessions, a genuine concern and care for the needs of others, are all habits to take root in us as we get to know God better.
A sort of ‘virtuous circle’ develops when we undertake these spiritual practices, fasting, prayer and almsgiving help clear the way for God, and the more open we are to God’s influence, the more we foster these spiritual attitudes.
Repentance is usually a gradual thing; most people don’t change overnight. Getting closer to God normally involves a constant series of conversations, not a single giant leap. Pray that God will give us the strength we need to turn to him sincerely and wholeheartedly, and that we use this lent as an opportunity to come back to him with all our hearts, as the prophet Joel passionately urges.
I urge you this Lent to walk the forty days with Jesus, come to the Lent groups and take in the film ‘Les Miserables’ which is challenging at times, but leaves much to think about and pray through.
Come to the Lent and Holy Week services, live the liturgy in all its fullness, witness the last hours of Jesus on Good Friday, and come to find a closer more intimate relationship with God.
But our Lenten story is just beginning, with the Wednesday Lenten Ash coming in the form of a cross, that instrument of torture where Jesus died for you and for me, taking the sins of the whole world upon himself so that our sins may be forgiven and whose death bestows upon us a life which is imperishable because, being with God life is eternal.