Homily for Ash Wednesday, 2008
Wednesday, February 6th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
“See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”
In his poem cycle, Ash Wednesday, T.S. Eliot uses the metaphor of a spiral staircase to evoke the concept of conversion to the Christian life. Recently, Karen Armstrong, in her autobiography, The Spiral Staircase, appropriated Eliot’s image to speak of her own climb from the darkness of depression. On a spiral staircase one is continuously turning and continuously ascending. And yet, one experiences a sense of déjà vu; one finds oneself in a remarkably similar place; similar and yet not the same. It is a forward and upward motion in which one's eyes are continuously fixed on where one has gone before, all the while steadily moving beyond where one has been. And to this pattern Eliot sets the words,
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
These words evoke the motion of the spiral staircase. In each turn we are reminded of what is left behind, even as we move toward a distant goal. Eliot’s poem may be read as a reflection on his own conversion to Christianity. He turns, and turns, and turns again – longing to leave behind the things of the past, and yet, with each turn, he glimpses them once again. The turn of the stair is difficult and frightening because all of our past is constantly in view, the good, the bad, and the ugly. With each turn one hopes for something more, and yet with each turn the sum of who we are, what we have been, the choices we have made are ever before us.
My sin is ever before me.
But when all is said and done it is in looking back that we meet our hope. In looking back we see not only the worst of who we have been, but the also providence of God in each turn. Is it not true that in any given moment we pine to see that hand of God at work and we lament when we cannot glimpse it? But how many of us looking backward catch that glimpse of the divine in retrospect? What we could not see before, we can see now: There was God. Now I know how God acted in the midst of all that pain, that sorrow, that disappointment. Now I know. Now I have eyes to see and ears to hear. And therein lies our hope. The backward glance from the spiral staircase enables the forward movement of hope. The backward glance enables us to turn again, against all fear, against all hope, against all trepidation. The backward glance illuminates that moment on a hill outside Jerusalem when a man hung on cross unto death. What seemed like the end was but the beginning. For as the disciples turned again and again round that spiral staircase, closer and closer into the presence of the risen one, with each backward glance, that frightful moment in which their Lord died, became for them the moment of hope for new life. With each turn they understood that moment more and more and more.
Our conversion into the Christian life may be likewise understood. Our journey is a spiral staircase, with each step and each turn illumined by a glimpse backward and a movement forward. We turn again, and again. Each turn may be frightful because our entire lives are ever before us, but each moment is a call to keep on turning and journeying toward the consummation of life in Christ. It seems to me that conversion can never be simply one moment in our lives. The one moment is reserved for Christ alone. It was that single moment on that hill when darkness descended. It is the moment of his crucifixion and resurrection that transforms the world, that transforms us. And it is to this moment that we turn again and again. Whenever we sense ourselves stopping on the staircase, overwhelmed, or God forbid, backing down the staircase into the abyss of our fear, we are called to turn again and continue the ascent under the strength of the one who beckons us forward, confronting both our past and the potential with us.
As the clock of the liturgical year comes round and here we turn again and meet our Ash Wednesday, shall we hope to turn again? Shall we dare to turn again? Can we dare to find the hope in the backward glance and our forward movement? Can we recognize in the turn and the step the sacred “now”? Each moment, each turn, each step, is a sacred “now” – a holy present moment in which past and future are confronted in a moment of choice. As St. Paul said, “now is the acceptable time, now is the day of our salvation.” Whether we have turned before is, in a way, irrelevant to the choice before us now. Can I hope to turn again? Do I dare to turn again? Shall I, in this moment, turn again? The late archbishop of Toronto Lewis Garnsworthy was fond of saying, “In the Anglican Church we have an altar call each week. It’s called the Eucharist.” Each year in this season of Lent, we dare to turn again and glimpse our past in all its glory and all its failings in order that we might take another step. Each week, as we approach the altar of grace, we glimpse back through our week in order that we might move forward into the new life. We do hope to turn, because we know that with each turn we meet again and again the acceptable time and the hour of our salvation. In each turn we meet the sacred and holy “now”, the moment of our conversion. With each turn we are called to turn to our Lord, meet our Lord, and cast all our burden on our Lord. In the spiral turn and the glance backward we see him with us in each turn and know that he shall be with us in each turn and step we take, and ultimately, be with us and welcome us home when our journey meets it holy end in its final glorious ascent.
Text copyright 2008, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This sermon may not be reproduced or redistributed, by any means, in whole or part, without the express written permission of the author.