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Vol I No. 1
Daily Thought

Ash Wednesday

by William J. Martin

We begin our Lenten Pilgrimage with the words of Lancelot Andrewes. Andrewes was a 17th-century poet, theologian, and Bishop of Winchester. He did not live to endure the horrific regicide of His Sovereign Lord, King Charles I. But on his own spiritual journey he culled gifts of Grace that have helped many a Christian in the modern age to understand the important place of enduring all manner of spiritual suffering as the soul moves from repentance and death and into virtue and new life. He had a special influence on T. S. Eliot. Perhaps these words that he writes can form a kind of introduction for us as we begin this Holy Season of Lent.

Lord I have sinned

                             But I am ashamed,

                                      And I turn from my wicked ways,

                                      And I return unto my heart,

                                      And with all my heart I return unto Thee,

                                      And seek thy face

                                                And pray unto Thee saying,

          I have sinned, I have done amiss, I have dealt wickedly,

                   I know, O Lord, the plague of my heart:

And behold I turn unto Thee

          With all my heart

          And with all my strength.

And now, O Lord, from thy dwelling place

And from the throne of the glory of thy kingdom in heaven,

Hear therefore the prayer and supplication of thy servant, 

          And forgive thy servant

                   And heal his soul.

 

Our Holy Season of Lent must begin with honesty. There is no point to keeping Lent if it will not be made holy through an honest recognition of our sins, negligences, and the evil that characterizes the nature of our hearts. Have we sinned? Have we gone astray? Can we admit it? Or are we only interested in judging other men’s sins, other men’s failures, and other men’s weaknesses? Pharisees judge others and gossip about them. Pharisees are cold and cruel critics full of their own contamination. Today we are called to recall our sins, yes our sins and our rebellion against the Most High God. Lord I have sinned.

Sin, if truly confessed and acknowledged cannot but make us full of shame. But I am ashamed. Are you ashamed of your sins? If not, perhaps you haven’t found them or maybe having found them you spring into condemnation of others because you cannot bear to confess them and are made to feel better about yourself in the balance of relativity. At least, I have not like him or like her. At least doesn’t figure in the vocabulary of God. At most is what we aim for and because we don’t reach it, we confess, Lord…I am ashamed. At most is our first principle and from it we have erred and strayed like lost sheep, following too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. (BCP 1928, p. 6)

But the Christian who confesses his sins and is ashamed of them desires to turn from his wicked ways and live. Why? He knows that they stand between him and God, between him and God’s Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, between him and the Holy Ghost, God’s power-laden transformer of things from evil to good and from the worst to the best. Sin stands between the sinner and his salvation. Without repentance and a turning away from sins, no sinner can be saved. And I turn from my wicked ways, And I return unto my heart….The heart is the seat of man’s desire. There he has turned from God, through himself, to the world. No, he returns to move in the other direction –back to God. And with all my heart I return unto Thee, And seek thy face….The Christian knows that he has offended God and so he returns to Him from the ground of his heart to begin afresh, to start anew, and to be born again.

And pray unto Thee saying,

          I have sinned, I have done amiss, I have dealt wickedly,

                   I know, O Lord, the plague of my heart:

The knowledge of sin breeds shame over it. Shame over sin yields yet again the experience of sins’ effects on others and on one’s own soul. Sin itself is all the more sinful as the habit of its unholiness is experienced as a plague that has corrupted others and the self. The heart is full of plague and pestilence. The true affections of the heart have been choked and suffocated by the sins of the flesh and the devil.

And behold I turn unto Thee

          With all my heart

          And with all my strength.

With what little affection and strength remain, the penitent soul turns wholly to God. And yet that little bit of love and that slender thread of power is sufficient to turn again back to God for succor and salvation. His strength is nearly dried up like a potsherd. His affection is small and feeble, having been exhausted on a host of lesser but larger loves. But God loves small beginnings and simple honesty. God loves pure humility and honest self-denial. God loves those who reveal themselves fully to Him. Their sins may be great but His love and mercy are greater.

The Christian has been humbled and brought low. And God would have him come up higher. The Christian is lowly in his own eyes. Though the LORD be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly: but the proud he knoweth afar off. (Ps. Cxxxviii. 6) Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. (St. Matthew v. 3) The Christian has a humble opinion of himself; a deep sense of his (moral) littleness; He is modest, humble, and lowly in his own mind. He cannot save himself. And while God alone can save him, he must cooperate with the Divine Grace in order to be saved. He must desire to be lifted up from his sin and out of his wickedness.

And now, O Lord, from thy dwelling place

And from the throne of the glory of thy kingdom in heaven,

Hear therefore the prayer and supplication of thy servant, 

          And forgive thy servant

                   And heal his soul.

The Christian desires that God in Jesus Christ might come down to lift him up. Not only does he desire that God might hear his plea, but he longs for God to save his soul. Lent is all about our being brought low by the confession of our sins and the desire for God’s salvation. The Christian desires to be saved from himself and the sin that has wrought such havoc in his own and other men’s lives. The Christian desires that God in Jesus Christ might lift him up and set him back on the high road that leads to Heaven. And as we claim and confess that we are but dust, let us pray for what God can do with us:

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners

Or swept away

By the smallest breath

As insubstantial

Did you not know

What the Holy One

Can do with dust?

This is the day

We freely say

We are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made

and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear. (Jan Richardson: What God can do with Dust)

Amen.

©wjsmartin