The following is Chapter 4 in the Lent collection of reflections found in the Pilgrim Year series: a multi-modal, media rich series of online (mobile device friendly) reflections on the Spirituality of the Christian Calendar year. I’ve done a fair bit of the writing but there are guest contributors as well. This one was written by our dear friend, the English poet/priest Malcolm Guite.
The complete series can accessed at pilgrimyear.com
“But hope could rise from ashes even now, beginning with this sign upon your brow.”
Dear friends in Christ,
I invite you to receive these ashes as a sign of the spirit of penitence with which we shall keep this season of Lent.
God our Father,
You create us from the dust of the earth: grant that these ashes may be for us a sign of our penitence and a symbol of our mortality; for it is by Your grace alone that we receive eternal life in Jesus Christ our Saviour
These are the words with which our ceremony of ‘ashing’ in the Church of England begins: with an invitation to friends and a prayer for grace. The friendship, the grace and the invitation are all “in Christ” but it is indeed the friendship of Christ that comes first.
The spirit of penitence in which we enter Lent is not sheer negativity, breast-beating, self-loathing or penitence for its own sake; rather, it is a belated recognition that as friends of Christ, called and loved, and bought with a price by the Most High, we could and should start to grow up into a better way of living and a closer walk with our Saviour.
There is a very beautiful, if hidden tradition that expresses the link between what Jesus has accomplished for us, and our Lenten desire to repent from what separates us from Him, and to begin again to live in the light of His love. The ash we use to make the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday should be made from the palm crosses we waved on Palm Sunday in the previous year. This tradition reminds us of how, only a year ago, during the services of Holy Week, we watched Him ride into Jerusalem and hailed Him as our Saviour; we saw Him cleanse the temple; heard Him teach the law of Love; saw Him lay aside His garments to wash our feet; and finally, watched Him open wide His arms for us on the cross.
Over the course of the year, how have we responded to all these actions on our behalf? How many of our good intentions have come to dust and ashes? How often have we forgotten to treat ourselves and others as infinitely precious, bought with the price of blood from Christ’s own heart? Here on Ash Wednesday, the God of new beginnings gives us the chance to start again. The ashes of those old Palm Sunday crosses point beyond the dusty limitations to our power and provide the opportunity to turn away from sin and start again, by God’s grace. So as each penitent comes and kneels at the altar, the priest makes the sign of the cross in ash and says:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
Recently, as I set about the priest’s traditional task of burning the remnants of palm crosses from last Palm Sunday to make the ash which would bless and sign our repentance on Ash Wednesday, I was suddenly struck by the way the fire and the ash were signs of both our personal mortality and individual need for repentance and renewal, as well as signs of the wider destruction our sinfulness inflicts upon God’s world and on our fellow creatures. Indeed, our sin affects the whole web of life into which God has woven us and for which He also cares. The curls of smoke rising from the brazier as I burned the palms seemed to summon the news reels I had seen of whole swathes of forests burning in the wanton destruction of rain forests.
I thought about all the passages referring to trees throughout the Bible: from the planting of the first trees in Eden; the beautiful prophecy in Isaiah where God promises to replant our deforested wilderness; to the glorious image of trees by the river of life in the book of Revelation.
Isaiah 41:19 (ESV)
I will put in the wilderness the cedar,
the acedia, the myrtle, and the olive.
I will set in the desert the cypress,
the plane and the pine together.
I thought of how the Psalms tell us that the righteous man will be like a tree planted by the waters that brings forth fruit in due season; and I felt strongly called, even as I made the ash, to make this Ash Wednesday a day not only to begin my walk through the wilderness with Jesus, but also a day to begin to care for the wild places that He created and we have been destroying. Some of this thinking is expressed in my poem for Ash Wednesday:
by Malcolm Guite
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 recognize 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.
Steve Bell has written a song, “Good Friend,” that echoes some of what I’m saying:
music and lyrics by Steve Bell
(lyrics inspired and adapted from Richard Wilbur’s poem “Mayflies”)
On somber night
When shivering clouds bemoan
The aching of souls alone
Then stars appear
One arc of their dance shows clear
And glittering song intone
Be but your own good friend
And be good to the other
Cherish those sisters and brothers
Along the road
And to the earth extend
Every reverence and wonder
Tend to the wounds of your blunders
Honour God who formed our home
When sun is low
Bright bands in forest glow
Fair fiats of Love. Behold!
See shimmering flies
In their quadrillions rise
Weaving a cloth of gold
The complete series of reflections from which the above is excerpted can be found at:
Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide, Ordinarytime