For ancient Israel, it was the locusts. For us, it’s this winter of our discontent! Relentless! But then, prophet Joel declares, “Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the Day of the Lord is coming; it is near.” So…multiplying the misery of those locusts in Israel…adding to the oppressive weight of this relentless winter…comes the revelation that God is somehow involved!
Three white leopards open the second movement of T. S. Eliot’s poem, Ash-Wednesday. What they are supposed to represent has long been anyone’s guess: the Holy Trinity; the sins of greed, gluttony, and lust; the divine agents of destruction that appear in Old Testament books like Joel? Scholars argue but have no conclusions. I suggest they represent our winter!
For in any case, Eliot’s leopards have devoured the poet’s innards—his heart and his liver and his brain—the leopards leave only a skeleton, broken and shattered bones lying in the sun. Then comes a question: “Shall these bones live?”
That might well be the question of Lent, which begins tonight. Unto bones, “scattered and shining,” we shall return, as God promised guilty Adam. For dust we are and to dust we shall return! Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But shall these bones live? Can the dust praise Thee, O God?!
For the prophet Joel, the answer is a definite maybe! “Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love… Who knows whether He will not turn and relent…” Who knows?! Is that the best ya got, Joel?
Still they blow the trumpet, the loud, blaring ram’s horn. They call a solemn assembly. They gather all the people, from the most aged among them to the youngest nursing infant. They even summon the bride and bridegroom back from their Caribbean honeymoon! Everyone weeps. Everyone fasts. Everyone prays. Who knows…maybe the Lord will relent.
Is that all we can hope from Lent? Is this only a season for getting our foreheads smudged with ashes? A season for some somber hymns, and forty days of doing without something. (I think that giving up brussels sprouts for Lent is a good idea!)
To be sure, the traditions of Lent have fallen on hard times. For many they have become an empty show, a parading of righteousness as Jesus soundly condemns. T.S. Eliot recognized the same thing in those early years of the last century. Religious traditions had become mere formality and were being widely ridiculed and rejected by the secular elite in those post-WWI years. Eliot’s solution was to express all the post-war anguish and uncertainty in poetic form, using religious imagery to reanimate the hollow traditions of his English Church.
And his poem, Ash-Wednesday, does precisely that. The leopards of war and peace have devoured his heart and the hearts of so many in his Britannia, and yet the poem witnesses a slow, winding pilgrimage to resurrection.
No, he recognizes, what has been done cannot be undone…yet these bones can indeed live. He writes, “Because these wings are no longer wings to fly / But merely vans to beat the air / The air which is now thoroughly small and dry / Smaller and dryer than the will / Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still.” To sit still, and know that the Lord is God!
So the Lord God does send His leopards, His locusts, His winters, and a thousand and one other weapons in His arsenal to shatter our hearts and devour us, leaving us wondering whether we can survive. For there is no pain quite like the pain of a broken heart…not merely in the romantic sense, but also a heart broken without hope, broken without will, broken without life.
Yet having broken our hearts with the poetry of His locusts and His winters, the divine Poet, in this heart-breaking season of Lent, working through the poetry of His prophet Joel and that of Eliot, God the divine heart-breaker, invites us to return to the ground of our breaking, to the ashes of our dying, to encounter there the One veiled in His own brokenness, crushed by God, stricken by Him and afflicted. Return…not to be destroyed, but to be redeemed.
We are the “children at the gate / Who will not go away and cannot pray” in Eliot’s poem. We are his faithless crowd who “chose Thee and oppose Thee.” Yet the poet, like Joel, urges us to cry to Heaven. No…not in the spirit of “Who knows?” But trusting that the God who has broken us will not forsake us, trusting that the winter of our discontent will give way, as Eliot writes, to the Garden of the single Rose, where all is gathered into God’s love, into His love Incarnate, His own heart Crucified and Resurrected.
Tonight, along with the many traditions of Lent, we add something else. As you leave tonight, you will be given a leather bracelet, with the single word “Forgiven.” I invite you to wear it through this season of Lent…it’s not as conspicuous as ashes, that’s for sure! We will be referring to it over the coming weeks, and, hopefully, you will see it on your own wrist and ponder that single, profound word and its significance for you.
After all, Lent with all of its traditions, old and new, as T.S. Eliot writes, is convinced that while God does break our hearts, while He certainly crushes and scatters our bones…yet these bones shall live…this heart also!
So we enter again this winter of ashes that we may come to the garden of resurrection. And our prayer tonight rises up to heaven like the words of another, much-debated Englishman, the Elizabethan poet, John Donne: Batter my heart, three-person’d God…. / That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new…. for I, / Except You enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.