Ash Wednesday – A poetic start to Lent

Thank you to Beth (Revd Dr Beth Cope, Team Pioneer Curate) for our Ash Wednesday reflections this year in which she intersperses the bible readings set for the day – Joel 2:1-2 & 12-17 and Matthew 6:1-6 – with contemporary poems.

img_1755Today is Ash Wednesday… the first day in our journey of preparation as we turn our faces towards the Cross of Good Friday… and the new Hope of Easter Sunday. But we cannot and must not rush ahead. Today, God invites us again to journey into the desert… just as Jesus journeyed into the desert for 40 days in preparation for his role in the long-promised Day of the Lord.

Somehow, everyday speech seems to fail to do justice to the deep significance of this coming Day, and the importance of preparing well. So perhaps we need to take inspiration from the scriptures and reach for the more creative language of poetry.  Perhaps, we will find new insights as weave our ancient scriptural poetry with contemporary prayerful poetry.  Perhaps this poem by Ruth Burgess might help us start our Lenten desert journey, and prepare us to encounter God in scripture, symbol, and prayer today:

The desert waits,
ready for those who come,
who come obedient to the Spirit’s leading;
or who are driven,
because they will not come any other way.

The desert always waits,
ready to let us know who we are –
the place of self-discovery.

And whilst we fear, and rightly,
the loneliness and emptiness and harshness,
we forget the angels
whom we cannot see for our blindness,
but who come when God decides
that we need their help;
when we are ready
for what they can give us.

img_1746We have more rich poetry in today’s Old Testament passage: extracts from a poem found in the book of the ancient poet-prophet, Joel.  Joel’s poetry draws on and quotes key themes from the surrounding scriptures, using powerful imagery to bring to life the repeating message that God had for his people then – and still has for us today. In particular, Joel writes of the coming Day of the Lord – or, in this translation, The Day of the Eternal One. See how the poet-prophet introduces it – imagine how these images spoke to Jesus himself as he turned his face to Jerusalem; and ponder again how they speak to us as we prepare too.

Joel 2:1-2 (The Voice)
1 Blow the trumpet in Zion;        

signal the alarm from My holy mountain!     
It is almost here. Let all who live in the land tremble
because the day of the Eternal One is coming.

2 Judgment will come on a black and fearful day;         
a thick cloud of darkness will loom over everything.     
A great and mighty army advances         
like dawn spreading across the mountains.     
Never has the world seen anything like it before,         
nor will future generations ever see anything like it again.

Our Bible reading has us pause at this point… but it doesn’t leave us there. If it did, we would face a Lenten journey through the desert full of fear and darkness. It would be like ending the Easter story in the thick cloud of darkness that loomed over Jesus and all Jerusalem as he hung on the cross on Good Friday.

Instead, we pick up the poem further down, as the poet-prophet unpacks how God wants his people to get ready for Day of the Lord:

Joel 2:12-17 (The Voice)
12  Even now, turn back your heart and rededicate yourselves to Me;     
Show Me your repentance by fasting, weeping, and mourning.
13  Rip the wickedness out of your hearts; don’t just tear your clothing.
Now return to the Eternal, your True God.     
You already know He is gracious and compassionate.
He does not anger easily and maintains faithful love.     

He is willing to relent and not harm you.
14  Who knows? Perhaps He will turn and relieve you of this threat,     
and leave behind some blessing as He goes—
Maybe enough grain and wine to offer     

to the Eternal, your True God?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; set apart a time for fasting;     
tell everyone to be still and stop working.
16 Assemble the people. Consecrate the congregation.     
Gather the elders and other leaders,
The young children, and even the nursing babies.     
Let the bride and groom leave their chambers on their wedding night.
17  Let the priests, the Eternal’s servants, stand between the porch and the altar     
and weep as they intercede. Let them say,
“Have pity on Your people, O Eternal One!         
And do not let Your legacy—Your covenant people—     
Be taunted and mocked by the nations,         
who ask, “Where is their God?””

Iimg_1737 wonder if you, like me, were struck by how Joel, the poet-prophet, takes away our fear as we start to prepare for the Day of the Eternal One by assuring us of the character of our True God? Perhaps you, like me, are reassured by how he quotes from the familiar stories of forgiveness after repentance in the book of Exodus, reiterating that the True God is “gracious and compassionate. He does not anger easily and maintains faithful love. He is willing to relent and not harm you.”

The message is clear – the great and terrible Day of the Lord is coming: but for those of us who dare to truly enter the desert of preparation, there will be blessings and not curses.

The contemporary Poet, Jan Richardson, puts it like this:

Rend Your Heart: A Blessing for Ash Wednesday

To receive this blessing,
all you have to do is
let your heart break.
Let it crack open.
Let it fall apart
so that you can see
its secret chambers,
the hidden spaces
where you have hesitated
to go.

Your entire life is here,
inscribed whole
upon your heart’s walls:
every path taken or left behind,
every face you turned toward
or turned away,
every word spoken in love
or in rage,
every line of your life
you would prefer to leave in shadow,
every story that shimmers
with treasures known
and those you have yet to find.

It could take you days
to wander these rooms.
Forty, at least.

And so let this be
a season for wandering
for trusting the breaking
for tracing the tear
that will return you

to the One who waits
who watches
who works
within the rending
to make your heart whole.

But what is this Blessing that both the contemporary poet and ancient poet-prophet refer to?

Were we to read on in the book of Joel, we’d hear how, when the people genuinely repent and prepare for God’s coming, God is filled with compassion and pity for his people and their lands, making the Day of the Lord not simply about Judgement but Salvation. The Day will restore abundant life to the people, and then go further– bringing the Divine presence to be imminent and tangible among God’s people. – Do you hear the foretaste of the temple curtain tearing in two on Good Friday?

Even more, Joel makes it clear that this promised restoration is not just for people… but for all of creation.

But what of our part in this? How does this bright future impact how we approach our time in the desert, this Ash Wednesday?  Perhaps Malcolm Guite’s Ash Wednesday Sonnet might help us think more about how our individual, inward, heart-rending connects with our potential for corporate, outward, spirit empowered world-changing:

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.

img_1730I wonder if this hints at what real fasting and repentance might look like… the life changing and world changing things that happens when we let God be the “One who waits who watches who works within the rending to make your heart whole.”

Remember what the poet-prophet Joel said: “turn back your heart and rededicate yourselves to Me;… Rip the wickedness out of your hearts; don’t just tear your clothing.”

The trouble is, it is so much easier to go through the motions: to act as though we are fasting, weeping, and mourning… and to fail to do business with the God who really can rend our hearts and make them whole again – and fit for his creative purposes.

This is something Jesus himself spoke clearly about. As we hear now as we stand for our Gospel reading:

Matthew 6: 1-6 (The Voice)
6  But when you do these righteous acts, do not do them in front of spectators. Don’t do them where you can be seen, let alone lauded, by others. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 When you give to the poor, do not boast about it, announcing your donations with blaring trumpets as the play actors do. Do not brazenly give your charity in the synagogues and on the streets; indeed, do not give at all if you are giving because you want to be praised by your neighbors. Those people who give in order to reap praise have already received their reward. 3-4 When you give to the needy, do it in secret—even your left hand should not know what your right hand is doing. Then your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.  5 Likewise, when you pray, do not be as hypocrites who love to pray loudly at synagogue or on street corners—their concern is to be seen by men. They have already earned their reward. 6 When you pray, go into a private room, close the door, and pray unseen to your Father who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.

And so with these clear warnings ringing in our ears – as well as the promise of the love and forgiveness of our Gracious and Compassionate True God, we begin out 40-day journey through our Lenten wilderness with an Act of Penitence. We do this not because others are watching… but quite simply because we want to allow God to rend our hearts… and make them whole again. For our good, and for the good of all creation.

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