Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Ash Wednesday

March 1st, 2006 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Update: the rather humorous spelling error is fixed. Thanks, Jim!

Today is Ash Wednesday, one of my favorite days in the church calendar. When I turned twenty-four this January, I joked with my students about having a "third-of-life crisis." As my days get older, my death gets closer and birthdays always remind me of that ominous fact.

While it seems morbid to many, contemplating our own mortality can be an incredibly beneficial practice for our spiritual lives. As David prays in Psalm 90:12, "So teach us to number our days that we may present unto thee a heart of wisdom." And Ash Wednesday is one of the only days in the church calendar that the reading comes from Lamentations, a drastically under-read book. My favorite: "It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth."

The season of Lent is one of the most difficult and rewarding seasons. It is a time of fasting and self-denial, of penitence and sorrow. But it is not a time of despair--that option was cut-off by the resurrection of Christ. It is a time of preparation for the celebration of Easter, not a time when we forget that Easter happened. Rather, the Easter events must be at the forefront of our consciousness as we engage in reflection, silence, and stillness, bearing the yoke in our quickly departing youth.
While it is an injustice to Eliot to quote only a part of his poem, I leave you with the first stanza(?) from "Ash Wednesday":

Because I do not hope to turn again

Because I do not hope

Because I do not hope to turn

Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope

I no longer strive to strive towards such things

(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)

Why should I mourn

The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again

The infirm glory of the positive hour

Because I do not think

Because I know I shall not know

The one veritable transitory power

Because I cannot drink

There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is

nothing again

Because I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place

And what is actual is actual only for one time

And only for one place

I rejoice that things are as they are and

I renounce the bleesed face

And renounce the voice

Because I cannot hope to turn again

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something

Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us

And I pray that I may forget

These matters that with myself I too much discuss

Too much explain

Because I do not hope to turn again

Let these words answer

For what is done, not to be done again

May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
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.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.