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 blessed face
— TS Eliot, lines from “Ash Wednesday”
Ash Wednesday is a strange day. I didn’t grow up in a tradition that marked Ash Wednesday or Lent; I mostly thought of Lent as the time my Catholic friends gave up sweets for forty days. I knew it had something vaguely to do with Jesus having been in the wilderness for that same amount of time, with Jesus on the cusp of becoming what Christians call their Savior, on the cusp of his ministry and death and resurrection. But he was taken to the desert by the devil and tempted. “Turn this stone to bread,” Satan said, “and I will believe you are the Son of God. Throw yourself off the temple, and then you will convince me. Worship me, fall down and worship me, and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” And Jesus said no, and no, and no again, and we all know the rest of the story.
And the rest of the story ends in death. It ends in our death — mine, and yours, and my siblings and parents and the babies who are being born right now, right this second. Ours are the ashes. Ours are the million reasons not to hope, not to seek, not to turn again. And if ever there is a day not to hope, this is that day. This day was made to remind us of the death of hope, of the life of “what is actual is actual only for one time / And only for one place.” We can rejoice in the lilac and the blue rocks and the yew-tree, but for what is next there is no reason to rejoice. We wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing, as Eliot reminds us.
Hope itself can become an idol. We hope for things to change from ash to gold, from dust to glitter, and the ash and the dust build up around us and wet our eyes until we cannot see things as they are. Too much hope is hope for the wrong thing; hope that denies our wretchedness and shortness is no hope at all. We hope she will change, he will apologize, I will be made new. And maybe, and no, and yes, to all. We name our daughters Hope, give them the heavy mantle of expectation to bear, and they walk the slender tightrope with the feet of gorillas, a world on their shoulders they were not meant to carry.
Even Jesus had some hope. “Take this cup from me,” he asked on that last night. We all know how that turned out.
His body never was turned to ashes. We turn to ashes a thousand times every day; so it may be that when our turn comes, we don’t know that we have ended. If we have died already, we may not know we have died again. But we know today that we are dead; today, on the day of death, we do not hope.
“Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
The right time and the right place are not here”