Yesterday evening, reading the words of the second movement of the Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony in a gap in the rehearsal, my thoughts turned to Ash Wednesday.
This is an uncomfortable festival, I think, and I think that’s because it isn’t really about God. As we prepare for the coming of Jesus during Advent, that’s about God. Amongst the rose petals and incense of Corpus Christi, that’s about God. Every week, on a Sunday, blessing he that cometh in the name of the Lord, that’s about God. And breathing hard into cold tile after the temple has been torn down on Maundy Thursday and weeping at the foot of the cross on Good Friday, those are uncomfortable things, too, but they are fundamentally about God.
Ash Wednesday is fundamentally about us.
We aren’t really used to that.
It’s about honesty and truth and stripping ourselves bare before our God. It’s about who we are and where we come from. It’s about becoming a Lenten people, starting on a journey that will take us through the desert and through Jerusalem and all the way to the foot of that cross. It’s an ancient tradition shared by those who came before us and those who will come after us and those who come with us. It’s knowing that, at the end of it, we will never ever be the same.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.
Adapted from Walt Whitman