Fr. David Curry
Christ Church Windsor NS, AD
lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the
Son of Man be lifted up,
whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Dust and ashes. Such is the
beginning of our Lenten pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a pilgrimage that is
essentially our participation in the Passion of Christ. Yet to enter
into Christ’s passion and to reap its benefits means to know the nature of
sin and its consequences. It requires that we understand ourselves as
sinners in need of redemption.
We begin with dust and ashes -
the symbols of death and repentance. We begin with the heartfelt
conviction of our self-willed distance from God. By accepting the
pronouncement of dust, we accept the judgment of death. In other
words, we identify with the primal sin of Adam and its deadly consequence.
“Remember, O man that thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou
return”. We remember this in order to realise that the story of
the Fall remains the truth of our daily experience. Separation from
God ultimately means death. “The wages of sin is death”.
But if we begin and end simply
with the consequence of sin, simply with the fact of our separation from
God, then there will be no journey, no pilgrimage. Ultimately sin
extinguishes the flame of love and leads to the cold, frozen immobility of
the soul. Without motion, without love, there can be no journey.
“All our doings without charity are nothing worth”. Ash
Wednesday both reminds us of the consequence of sin and marks the first
stirrings of divine love in us. Lent is the pilgrimage of God's love.
“We go up to Jerusalem”, Jesus says. It is a journey with
him in his love for us.
Fire ever doth
And makes all
like itself, turns all to fire,
But ends in
but as the poet John Donne also
reminds us, it should not be so with love. The fire of divine love
should not end in ashes. Here we begin with ashes. Ashes, not
dust, are imposed - placed - upon our foreheads. The ashes are
symbolic of repentance and the sacrifice for sin. They are a visible sign to
us of the power of God’s love who turns us away from sin and death and turns
us towards himself. The forehead marked with ashes clearly identifies
the cause of that separation in humanity’s free, rational will and also
indicates that faculty in us which divine love seeks to perfect. Ashes
mark our foreheads, signalling the repentance that turns the soul towards
eternal life and away from endless death.
And the Lord said to Ezekiel:
Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the
foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that
are committed in it. (Ezekiel 9.4)
We are that earthly Jerusalem,
full of abominations and the desolations of sin and so we must be those who
“sigh and groan” over the sad, sordid tale of all our sorry sins.
Our Lenten pilgrimage seeks at once the destruction of this old Jerusalem
and the restoration of a New Jerusalem; at once a dying and a rising to
life. Both the destruction and the restoration require that the ever
present reality of our sins be made clear to us.
Yet the simple acknowledgment of
sin will not accomplish our restoration. It will not be by our efforts
alone that we enter Jerusalem. No. The sin separating man from
God must be more than repented of. It must also be taken away, purged
and transformed. We must see and know this purgation and
transformation as the power of the goodness of God which overcomes all evil,
just as it underlies the perversity of our wills and the sheer folly of our
actions. We must see the darkness that we have chosen transformed into
light, our sin changed into the righteousness of Christ. We may even
to come to know how our sins can be the greater occasion of God’s forgiving
grace at work. “Yet gaily I forgive myself”, sings Cunizza in
Dante’s Paradiso, having come to know the triumph of the greater love
of God perfecting our imperfect human loves. We are not yet there, but
she signals what we seek.
Yet the restoration of our
natures can only be accomplished by one whose will is not, like ours, in
disorder and disarray. It must be in one whose nature is our pure
humanity, by one who wills the eternal good purely and freely. And the
restoration must be in him, in his taking upon himself all that is not his,
making it his so that he might transform, restore and perfect us. And
we must at once see and will this, only so can we be participants.
Such is the mystery of Christ’s passion.
As Moses lifted up the
serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that
whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3.14)
The lifting up of the serpent
refers to The Book of Numbers where the people of Israel, plagued by
poisonous serpents as a consequence of their hardness of heart, “in the
day of temptation in the wilderness”, were delivered from death by
contemplating that which had plagued them, namely, “a bronze serpent”,
lifted up before them by Moses. Their remedy was their sin
transfigured, but the point is that they had to look upon that which had
plagued them. Their sin was made clear to them. They looked and
were spared. It was, we might say, a most salutary object lesson.
We contemplate Christ crucified.
Mark in my heart, O
soul, where thou dost dwell,
the picture of Christ
crucified, and tell
countenance can thee affright,....
And can that tongue
adjudge thee unto hell,
forgiveness for his foes’ fierce spite”...
For “this beauteous
form assures a piteous mind” (John Donne).
We come to Calvary to see our
sins made visible in Christ crucified and to know in him the immensity of
God’s love. It at once impels and informs our Lenten pilgrimage. We begin
with our foreheads marked by ashes in sorrow for our sins. Such is
love-in-repentance. Through the passion of him whose forehead bore the Crown
of thorns, love-in-sacrifice, we pray that our mark of ashes may be
transformed into the name of love-in-glory in that city where “there
shall no more be anything accursed; but the Throne of God and of the Lamb
shall be in it and his servants shall worship him, they shall see his face,
and his name shall be on their foreheads” (Rev.22.4). We begin in ashes
that we may end in glory.