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.