john davies
notes from a small curate

    Ash Wednesday

    Holy Trinity Parish Communion 05/03/03

    Matthew 6.16-21, 2 Corinthians 5.20-6.10
      Because I do not hope to turn again
      Because I do not hope
      Because I do not hope to turn
    These words begin the poem Ash Wednesday by T.S. Eliot. What a contrast they are to the words of St Paul to the Corinthians, which we heard earlier:
      Be reconciled to God
    Eliot's epic poem is an inner journey of someone who seems to feel that reconciliation with God is beyond him, something unattainable. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes who laments the meaninglessness of human existence, Eliot seems to have given up:
      Because I know that time is always time
      And place is always and only place
      And what is actual is actual only for one time
      And only for one place
      I rejoice that things are as they are and
      I renounce the blessed face
      And renounce the voice
      Because I cannot hope to turn again
    Eliot speaks for all who want to hope but can't; for all who want to find faith but don't know where to look; for all who want to be reconciled to God but don't know how. Lent belongs to such as these.

    Lent isn't for the religious people who think they know precisely what to do to get right with God. Jesus makes this clear when he says,
      When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
    I think those are the scariest words in the gospels: they have already received their reward, these people who know it all and show it off. They're happy now, God says; leave them to it - there's nothing else for them from me.
      Because I do not hope to turn
      Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
      I no longer strive to strive towards such things
    - Eliot writes. He's a man in tune with Lent, for Lent isn't for those who deal with the emptiness in life by striving to do better than the next person, driven by desire. Jesus challenges this when he says,
      Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth ...
      But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven...
      For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also
    Lent is for those who feel that all the rewards life can offer them are transitory, empty things:
      Why should I mourn
      The vanished power of the usual reign?
    - Eliot again.

    Lent is for those who can live with the irony of saying, Because I cannot hope to turn again, which is actually an expression that hope exists.

    Lent hope is a tough hope; grounded in self-awareness, in a consciousness that life is slender, that goodness is hard to achieve and even harder to sustain.
      Look at me: I worked my way up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty. [Groucho Marx]

      I don't want to achieve immortality through my work: I want to achieve it through not dying. [Woody Allen]

      "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds": [someone said to Mae West]
      "Goodness had nothing to do with it!" [she replied]
    This is how God likes us to come at Lent and anytime: approaching him with a sorry smile on our faces that once again we've realised how mortal and imperfect we are, and once again it's him we're coming to, looking for hope.

    Yesterday here we held a funeral service for a young man who died suddenly, inexplicably, and the church was packed full of people. Later I received an email from one of those folks, an old friend of the deceased from their days together in Hunters Lane chapel Boys Brigade. He said,
      my faith has teetered for quite a time and something spoke loud to me today ... the whole thing helped me find my faith a bit clearer.
    That's who Lent is for. The sort of person who will not relax the struggle for faith, hard though it so often is, and who as a consequence of their struggle, will find God offering help and hope even in the most unlikely circumstances.
      Wavering between the profit and the loss
      In this brief transit where the dreams cross
      The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
    Lent is for us in our struggles. Today we are signed with a cross of ashes. The ashes remind us of our mortality, our struggle. But Thomas Merton wants to remind us that:
      The cross, with which the ashes are traced upon us, is the sign of Christ's victory over death. It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity.
    Although at times we do not dare to hope, Christianity offers us hope anyway. Lent helps us face ourselves honestly, and face God through it all. As Eliot's poem ends we can see that he has turned after all, as we can, towards hope's source:
      Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
      Teach us to care and not to care
      Teach us to sit still
      Our peace in His will
      And even among these rocks
      Suffer me not to be separated
      And let my cry come unto Thee.