Beginning with this sign upon your brow

            A recent sonnet by the priest-poet Malcolm Guite explores the meaning of the ashes received on the forehead as part of an Ash Wednesday service.  Malcolm writes the following:

Receive this cross of ash upon your brow,
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross.
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands
The very stones themselves would shout and sing
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their Lord and king.
He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please,
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.

Malcolm recognises in the sonnet that the ashes, and the trees from which they come, act as symbols of how we relate to the world and to God.  Malcolm writes elsewhere that, as he prepared ashes for Ash Wednesday, he 

was suddenly struck by the way both the fire and the ash were signs not only of our personal mortality and our need for repentance and renewal but also signs of the wider destruction our sinfulness inflicts upon God’s world and on our fellow creatures, on the whole web of life into which God has woven us and for which He also cares.
So it is that Lent, which begins today, acts as a season holding together quite paradoxical elements: sin and death with hope and life; fire and ashes with blessing and joy.  How can we make sense of such a set of paradoxes?

The ashes make, of course, a cross on our foreheads, calling us to imitate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.   And so it is Christ who holds together all these paradoxes.  He calls us to see him through Lent and find a fresh love of the world as we follow his way.  Lent stops us short amidst our busy consumption to love these lands/And recognise in Christ [our] Lord and king as Malcolm’s sonnet puts it.   As Lent teaches us to love the world and see Christ within it, it also reveals to us how damaged that world and we are, and how damaging we can be.  St Paul calls such a growing awareness – of sin and of forgiveness – as a kind of birthing pain:  hard, terrible, almost unbearable, and yet bringing about a miracle of new life, a life in Christ our Hope.   May we all be born to new and renewed life, such that Hope could rise from ashes even now/Beginning with this sign upon your brow.