31 March 2021

Poems for Holy Week 2021:
3, Walter Brueggemann, ‘Marked by Ashes’

‘Ashes’ (1894), by Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

Patrick Comerford

Wednesday 31 March 2021

Wednesday in Holy Week (‘Spy Wednesday’)

Reading: John 13: 21-32.

Each evening in Holy Week this year, once again, I am reading a poem to help our reflections.

My choice of a poem for Holy Week this evening, the last Wednesday in Lent, is ‘Marked by Ashes,’ by Walter Brueggemann, in which he says:

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes

This poem is included in his book Prayers for a Privileged People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), pp 27-28. This is a poem, not only for Ash Wednesday, but for every Wednesday in Lent.

Walter Brueggemann, who born in Nebraska in 1933, is a distinguished Old Testament scholar and theologian. An ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, he is Professor Emeritus of Old Testament Studies at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and now lives in retirement in Cincinnati, Ohio.

He is the author of over 100 books, hundreds of articles, and several Biblical commentaries, and is known for his brilliant method of combining literary and sociological modes in reading the Bible.

Throughout his career, Walter Brueggemann has combined the best of critical scholarship with his love for the local church and its service to the kingdom of God. His experience as a long-standing member of his local church gave rise to his book Prayers for a Privileged People, which includes this poem.

The Dean of Wakefield, the Very Revd Simon Cowling, in a blog posting some years ago while he was Canon Precentor of Sheffield Cathedral, said: ‘At first reading the prayer, with its striking and insistent use of ‘Easter’ as an imperative verb, appears to be less about Lenten penitence and fasting than about Resurrection joy and feasting. Digging more deeply, we begin to understand that the prayer is an exploration of an archetypal, perhaps the archetypal, New Testament theme: the mysterious space between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’; between Christ’s resurrection victory and his coming again at the consummation of all things.’

In Brueggemann’s prayer, it is Ash Wednesday, or just ‘Wednesday’, that stands for this space. And God’s ‘eastering’ of this space continually reminds us that, even in the midst of our Lenten disciplines, the fruits of Christ’s resurrection continue to be known in our lives and the life of the Church.

Marked by Ashes by Walter Brueggemann

Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day ...
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness with
some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
you Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

John 13: 21-32 (NRSVA):

21 After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ 22 The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. 23 One of his disciples – the one whom Jesus loved – was reclining next to him; 24 Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25 So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ 26 Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. 27 After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ 28 Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29 Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30 So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.

The Collect of the Day:

Lord God,
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters,
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings
of this present time,
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

‘This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility’ … a late summer sunset at Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Continued tomorrow: CP Cavafy, ‘Julian at the Mysteries’

Yesterday’s poem: CS Lewis, ‘Evensong’

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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