Williams Wordsworth continues to be one of my favorite poets. His 19th century writing – both in lyrical style and in substance – always captures my imagination. Let me read for you just the first two stanzas of his lengthy work titled “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
Wordsworth contends that we come into this world “trailing clouds of glory… from God, who is our home.” We see the world, and everything about it, infused with beauty and mystery and wonder. But somewhere along the path of life something gets lost, or neglected, or damaged, or discarded, or twisted. “It is not now as it hath been of yore.” Throughout the remainder of the poem Wordsworth struggles to recapture that feeling he had as a boy, a feeling of immortality.
Do you know the feeling Wordsworth is describing? Do you remember a time that felt innocent and the world was pregnant with possibilities and each new day was the beginning of a great adventure? I do. Is it something you feel to this day? For most of us, probably not. Compared to that time, this time is as the prophet Joel described in our first reading: “a day of clouds and thick darkness.”
The observance of Ash Wednesday and with the Imposition of Ashes dates back at least to the 8th century. One of the earliest descriptions of it is found in the writings of an abbot by the name of Aelfric in his 11th century work “Lives of the Saints”:
“We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”
Aelfric goes on to tell the story of a person who refused to go to church for the ashes and was accidentally killed several days later in a boar hunt! Not to subtle there, is he?
There is a deep, historical penitential element running through this season of Lent. Early on the church used it as a time to restore the penitent to the church. A list of grievous sins ranged from adultery to sorcery to fighting in a war. To this day the church invites us to examine our hearts, review our actions, and confess our sins.
Jan Richardson, a Methodist pastor, suggests we make a slight shift in our Lenten focus from strict penitence to something that feels more like what Wordsworth describes in his poem about childhood. Allow me to read Richardson’s poem “Blessing the Dust: A Blessing for Ash Wednesday” (that Sally Duncan shared with me):
All those days
you felt like dust,
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
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
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge we bear.
That is quite a contrast to the clouds and deep gloom that mark our adult experience of life. What would it look like to bring this reality with you to the altar rail as you receive the ashes? What would it look like to carry it with you through this season of Lent? What would it look like to pursue the prayer of the psalmist:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again,
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
What would it look like to come out of Lent with a renewed sense of what God is doing with the dust that is you?
Wordsworth came to a point where he experienced this kind of renewal: His poem finishes with these famous lines:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
May your Lent be filled not with grieving, but rather in finding strength and joy and wonder in what remains in your life. May a right spirit be renewed within you. May you be overwhelmed with splendor as you rediscover God present in this world. May you be filled an awe that comes from knowing how precious you are to the one who created you. May you come to know anew what the Holy One can do with dust!