Tuesday, 28 February 2017
To fly where truth and light do lie
As we kneel on Ash Wednesday to allow a cross to be traced on our foreheads in the ashes of last year’s palm crosses, Isaiah uncomfortably reminds us that we could be missing the point of Lenten observance.
Percy Dearmer’s paraphrase in his carol ‘White Lent’ brings the message home.
To bow the head, in sackcloth or in ashes, or rend the soul, such grief is not Lent’s goal;
but to be led to where God’s glory flashes, his beauty to come nigh,
to fly where truth and light do lie.
Lent is a time to draw closer to God and be transformed by the experience, discerning, as Dearmer puts it, God’s beauty. Dearmer is of course most remembered for his delight in beauty: beauty in worship, through The Parson’s Handbook, and in music, through The English Hymnal and Songs of Praise. But he was also a lifelong socialist who gave up his parish during the First World War to be a chaplain to the Red Cross in Serbia, where his wife, who had gone to work with their ambulance unit, died of fever. For the next 15 years he had no church appointment, but after being made a canon of Westminster in 1931 he used the position to open a canteen for the unemployed.
The socialist Dearmer would have appreciated Isaiah’s charge against the people of God (38.3) ‘Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers.’ And the prophet’s warnings appear designed for today when he calls us to ‘share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house’. Isaiah has a firm conviction that we come closer to God through social action than through any act of piety.
The mood Dearmer’s carol creates fits perfectly with Jesus’s advice ‘Do not look dismal’. However sombre a mood we try to create by removing displays of flowers from our churches and veiling anything which might delight the eye, nature will not be denied. Successive waves of spring bulbs assure us that the darkness of winter is over, and new life is emerging. It calls us to thankfulness, and with it, the response of our love in action.
I wish you a joyful and blessed Lent.
Tom Ambrose is a priest in the diocese of Ely.
Posted by Tom Ambrose on
Tuesday, 28 February 2017 at 12:00pm GMT
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Oh that just nails it perfectly
Very nice Tom. Short, sweet and pithy.
Thanks, Tom. A joyful and blessed Lent to all.
At our hospital chapel here in Sydney Diocese (where in most churches neither Ash Wednesday nor Lent be observed), at Holy Communion we read from Isaiah 58 for the Lesson - which, as noted here, has a very good message for the whole of Lent, with the usual S.Matthew Gospel. Jesus I think was talking about the MOTIVES of some who displayed their religion for the wrong reasons in his day. Of the many people, especially staff, who received the ashes here today (in chapel services and in the wards) I don't think anyone received them for that wrong reason. In a place with many Muslim staff and patients and many of the others not church-attenders, I am sure the ash cross was a simple, helpful little witness in a community where Christianity is too often neither seen nor heard of. (Most of our c.400 patients do identify with a religion, the great majority as Christians of one kind or another.) I thank God for this and so many other blessings.
Thank you for you positive contribution. Percy Dearmer had it so right. But through the years I am reminded of those good folk who have come in sackcloth and ashes to let me overhear their confession, and gone away with the Light of Christ in theirs eyes and hearts,.
This Lent I am rejoicing in the SSJE American house Lenten course on the 5 Marks of Love, based on the 5 Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion. Positive, challenging, and uplifting.
Fr John West Lothian. Scotland
Thank, Fr. Tom, for your lovely reflection.
Thank you, also, Chaplain Bunyan, for your note on the observation of Ash Wednesday in a Sydney Hospital - a great witness in a barren land of Anglican observation generally.
Thank you, Father John - a good Episcopal rite in Scotia.
I think there's a difference between demonstrative acts of piety, designed as religious expression for all to see, and the private piety that seeks to strip layers off ourselves in meeting God in the wilderness places (which of course include the wilderness places of social injustice, raw poverty, loneliness and abandonment).
I don't think anyone should regard the time of Lent as a cessation of social service of those in need. As Jesus has been reported to say: when you clothed me, when you fed me etc.
At the same time, in preparation for the high sacrifice and resurrection of Easter, I do think there's a case for time out in prayer, for a season of fasting (of whatever kind), for that stripping bare to prepare and confront the nature of that 'cross' that Jesus journeyed with and to, the cross we too are called/invited to bear.
So although prayer and contemplation and indeed service of humanity may engage us with beauty as well as barrenness, I do think there's potential in Lent for an 'unveiling' of ourselves, for a little stripping bare, and givenness in prayer to God.
I see Jesus's Lenten equivalent in two concepts really... the 40 days of preparation in the wilderness... and the journey Jesus made setting his face 'towards Jerusalem' (full knowing what awaited there) which was a journey full of people, service, givenness to others... but which must also have involved the growing sense of loneliness from others around him, knowing what he was heading towards.
I think we need both expressions in Lent. As Yeats said in 'Easter 1916' - "Too long a sacrifice Can make a stone of the heart." And yet, in the churning, unfolding, pulse of human lives, there is sacrifice too and, as Yeats put it, "A terrible beauty" may be born.
Our baptism is a baptism into the cross of Jesus... the very nature of spiritual baptism... death to self, and the birth that follows.
I think death to self comes through stepping aside to spend time with God, and comes through stepping forward to the point of no return, in the (difficult) givenness of love.
I don't think it's all about 'pretty' beauty and crocuses, but I do think we may come to stare into the face of beauty, a terrible beauty, a beauty scarred and damaged, but beauty crying out for help and love.