Thought for the month
Many of our rituals, whether of daily living or of worship, have lost much of their original meaning over the years. For example, hot cross buns are now available all year round, instead of being specially baked just for Good Friday. But the ritual used on Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, the six weeks of preparation for Easter, still retains its ability to bring us up short by its starkness and simplicity.
The priest marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the shape of a cross, which the worshipper traditionally retains until it wears off. As the ashes are being applied, words similar to Genesis 3:19 are said: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. As Giles Fraser puts it in his article “Intimations of mortality”, in these days when we have lost the art of speaking plainly about death, the liturgy for the beginning of Lent remains one of the most powerful proclamations of mortality.
But ashes are symbolic of penance as well as mortality and mourning, our Christian use of ashes deriving from the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one’s head as a way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. Originally a sign of private penance, very early on in the Church’s history ashes became part of a public ritual at the start of Lent, although the use of ashes made from the palm branches of the previous year is more recent – only 12th century!
So we prepare for Easter by remembering both that we all must die and that God wants us to repent, so that he can forgive us and give us eternal life. Do join us throughout our preparation for Easter.
Although less familiar than “We three kings” with its “Star of wonder …” refrain, Die Könige, Richard Kindersley’s choice for a carol that above all he associates with Christmas, has words by Peter Cornelius, a Weimar poet and composer, and was sung by Marc Tempelhoff and the choir at our Sunday@Six carol service.
Three Kings from Persian lands afar
To Jordan follow the pointing star:
And this the quest of the travellers three,
Where the new-born King of the Jews may be.
Full royal gifts they bear for the King;
Gold, incense, myrrh are their offering.
The poem is sung by the soloist, while the choir sings a version of Nicolai’s Epiphany hymn Wie schön leutet der Morgenstern, “How brightly shines the morning star, with grace and truth from heaven afar”.
As Kindersley puts it: the third verse “finishes beautifully, the soloist singing ‘Offer thy heart to the infant King, Offer thy heart’, with a sweetly high second ‘heart’, while the choir are singing ‘Praise, O praise such love o’erflowing’, tugging at the strings”. It’s a challenging poem! [For the full text, with its accompanying chorale, go to this link]
“Gold, incense, myrrh thou canst not bring”, but you can join us as we worship the infant King.
In the interest of making things attractive and accessible to children, we can lose the whole point of Advent, the season of the Coming of Christ. Christ came once, in the child and man Jesus, but we look also for a new coming of Christ, and Advent is as much about that ultimate Coming as it is about the baby Jesus. It is not just about a hope that was realised in the past; it is about our hope for now and for the future, the ultimate future.
In “The Colour Purple”, a novel by Alice Walker, the leading character continually equates the colour purple with suffering and pain, but in a field of purple flowers she is taught to see beauty and to embrace it, and learns to acknowledge all that is good, for God has placed it on earth. Purple is also the colour of Advent, for vestments and decorations, and in some advent rings there will be purple candles as well as or instead of red ones. For purple is associated both with suffering and pain, and also with royalty and the triumph of the king, the work and victory of Jesus.
In Advent we take a careful look at ourselves, at our need of being made whole by the grace of God. We may learn to face up to the evils we have suffered, and have done to others; and then to open our hearts and souls to the undefeated, unlimited, never-ending love and grace of God, revealed in Jesus. We can learn not to be dominated by the ugly, but to fill our lives and our worlds with beauty – above all with the beauty of Christian lives, lives lived in the light of Christ. When we get hold of that message, then it really is time to light the candles, switch on the fairy lights, sing the carols and … celebrate!
[Shortened from an Advent thought by the Revd Eric Potts, available in full in our magazine at Contact]