A Plea for Ashes

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season. For a simple and concise explanation of Ash Wednesday and Lent, check out this article from my church. 

The Old Testament passage from the daily office today comes from Jonah 3 and 4. Leading up to his passage, Jonah had already been swallowed up by the big fish for skirting God’s call on his life, and he is begrudgingly and bluntly spreading the news of the Ninevites fate (let’s just say, it is not good) at the hands of God’s wrath. Surprisingly, the people faithfully repent as the news reverberates against their souls. The king catches the wind of change amongst his people, so he issues a decree to his subjects:

By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.

The sweet aroma of repentance rises up to God, so he decides to stay his wrath on Nineveh. Their radical commitment to the ways of God rendered the people holy and pleasing in his sight, and their communal recognition and repentance of their incendiary transgressions saved them physically and spiritually. They were now his children.

Ash Wednesday (the springboard to Lent) causes us to face the reality of our sin; we are brought face-to-face with its inherent death. It is as if Jonah is walking through the gates of our souls and communities decrying our upcoming upheaval — “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

This Sunday, a subtle line in my church’s sermon compared this season to the fervent evangelical revivals – a time for man, for the church, to remember their natural state detached from the Father and be called back into communion with him. It’s a time of mutuality, where each and every man recalls their common baseness.

The Lenten season, introduced by the placement of ashes upon our brows, necessitates a response from us. As we come around to this time, I think we often respond as Eliot’s narrator does in his poem, “Ash Wednesday”:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn…

We wrestle with this tension of transformation – knowing God can mold us through our sacrifice, but also not wanting to sacrifice what it takes. Our inability to submit as the Ninevites did reveals our lack of hope. We know God has moved in our life, but we feel as if we are too far away for him to do so again. Why risk everything during Lent (and life) if our hope might be found wanting?

The progression of the first part of “Ash Wednesday” seems to suggest that Eliot’s narrator doesn’t feel or really want to hope any longer, and he doesn’t want the sacrificial life of Lent to leave him at a loss. He “pray[s] to God to have mercy upon us / And pray that I may forget / These matters that with myself I too much discuss / Too much explain / Because I do not hope to turn again…”

There is this story which hides beneath his desire to forget the past, to not think about the hard spiritual realities which plague his mind and heart. Yet, he ends the first part of the poem with a very distinct and common prayer; he clings subconsciously to last lines of the “Hail Mary” and recites them as if they are a part of his very essence, whether he likes it or not. His unawareness in this response is not merely rote, irreligious repetition, but the overflow of something true. It is the spiritual means of recognizing the transformative power of entering into the rhythm of the church calendar – the sacrificial life which expects the work of the Spirit to bind us back to the Father during Lent:

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Ash Wednesday reminds of us this death, and Eliot’s prayer is the expectation of life in Christ renewed in Lent. While there is a sense of hesitation, the same hesitation we all experience as we plunge into this purging season, the hope is found in the sacrificial life – a life embodied and reflected by the Ninevites.

As we enter into this sacred time, will we allow ourselves to recognize our common brokenness and sinfulness, or will the mark of the Cross upon our foreheads be a mere formality, a box to check in the laundry list of items “required” by our church? Will we plunge ourselves in the uncompromising trust of our Father to save us from the fate of Nineveh, or will we continue in the shroud of sin’s darkness? Will we follow the unknowing path of Eliot and lift up a hopeful prayer, or will we let our fear of missing our perceived mark of faithfulness hold us back?

Personally, I hope and pray for the former.

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