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Ash Wednesday

Fr. David Curry

Christ Church Windsor NS


“Turn thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned”


”And Let our cry come unto thee”


T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” begins with an almost mantra-like line: “Because I do not hope to turn again”.  By the last section of the poem, the line has shifted ever so slightly and yet, ever so significantly: “Although I do not hope to turn again”.  The poem actually ends with the prayer, “And let my cry come unto thee”.  Hope, over and against even the denials of hope, ultimately cries out in prayer.


Between the beginning, which would seem to eclipse any possibilities of continuing, and the ending, which at least opens out the possibilities of renewed beginnings, there is a kind of meditation.  The poem is a meditation upon the ambiguities, the hesitancies, and yes, even the denials of desire, but as interspersed with the countering cries of the heart in the language of prayer.  There are the cries for mercy, for forgiveness, for salvation, for “our peace in His will”, echoing Dante.  The poem captures something of the disquieting unsettledness of our contemporary culture.


And yet it offers hope.  It ends in prayer because prayer, like a deep-flowing stream, runs strongly throughout the poem, sometimes “with sighs too deep for words”, at other times, breaking into the language of prayer.  It is as if for all our sophistications, cynicisms, and despair we cannot suppress the profounder motions of our own souls.  Almost in spite of ourselves, we find ourselves in prayer.  There is a turning again.  “Have mercy upon me, O God,...according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences” (Ps.51.1).


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent.  It is in every way a season of renewal, of the turning again, for even “because I do not hope to turn again”, even “although I do not hope to turn again”, we are being turned again, we do indeed hope against our hope to turn again. “Make me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps.51.10). There is something stronger than the oblivion of our hopelessness, so willful and so deadly.  There is something stronger than our will to nothingness, something stronger than the despair which is the denial of desire.


Repentance is about our turning again to him from whom we have turned away.  Sin is about our turning away.  Repentance is about our turning back to him again.  It is the signal note of this day from the Scriptures and in the Liturgy: “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2.13).


What makes repentance possible - no, it must be put more strongly - so necessary, is the idea, so unshakeably real, that God has turned to us.  His turning to us is in spite of ourselves. His turning to us “while we were yet sinners”(Rom.5.8) is the strong love which defeats the despairing disquietude of our souls.  There is someone to whom we can turn again, someone to whom we can pray; “And let our cry come unto thee”.


Why is that idea so real, so unshakeably real?  Because it has already born all our rejections and denials and despairs.  That is part of its reality, part of the enduring strength of the idea which, although we kick against it, we cannot altogether extinguish from our souls.  It breaks through.  Such is the burning love of the crucified Christ - a love which is wanted to burn ever so strongly in us as well.


In the crucified Christ, we see the strong love of God which will not have our love end in ashes, the ashes of despair, but makes out of our ashes a beginning, a renewed beginning, a beginning again.  The ashes of Ash Wednesday are the ashes of repentance, not the ashes of death and despair.  They are the ashes of our turning again.  What is wanted is that we should dispell those hesitancies of our souls and turn again full-heartedly, our wills fully and freely willing the will of him who has turned to us and turns us to himself.  It is the prayer of our Liturgy on this day.



“Turn thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned”


“And let our cry come unto thee”.