And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.
—T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday
I attended an Ash Wednesday service in one of the smallest villages in Devonshire, England tonight, Hatherleigh. The church, St. John the Baptist Church, is an Anglican church whose building has existed for over 600 years. It was a windy, rainy first day of March, and you could hear the wind beat upon the roof. There were twelve people in attendance at the service, and that included two ministers and an organist. Most importantly, God was in attendance. I do not make that statement with any kind of theological pride or presumptive biblical reasoning. It is simply a personal experience.
For nine people tonight, the liturgy, the music, the reflection, the imposition of the ashes and the sacrament brought reflection and repentance. As the wind howled outside, it became clear that God was on the inside. As Eliot intones above, “This is the time of tension between dying and birth.” In Ash Wednesday, we die to selves, again, and begin the slow, steady march to the cross, and the resurrection. Yet we do not make this journey alone. It is guided by the Word made flesh, empowered by the Holy Spirit and is an act of worship to the Father. The rhythms of this service place us directly in God, and for God. We are in God in that we share the sufferings of Jesus as his disciples. We are for God in that we travel the road to the cross with him. Our being is thus defined by both sacrament and mission. We are God’s.
In a brave, new world, where morals are marginalized and the self is aggrandized, Ash Wednesday pulls us back into orbit around God, reminding us of where our loyalties lie, and of the great price God paid for our lives. Ash Wednesday inaugurates the season of lent, the only liturgical season that is not about God per se, but about His people and their mission.