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THE BEAUTY OF HOLINESS

by Rev. Dr. Bruce Allen Heggen

Sisters and Brothers: Grace and Peace from God who gives us life and longing, and from Jesus Christ, our Centre and our Saviour. Amen.

. . . . The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, has given us a poem he called “Easter 1916.” The poem recalls an act of terrorism: On Easter Sunday, 1916, sixteen ordinary Irishmen blew up a Dublin bank in protest of the English occupation of Northern Ireland. In the poem Yeats tells of time spent with these friends, men and women, both; he remembers mornings together over coffee in a coffee shop, and evenings together in a pub; he recalls the relaxed way in which this seemed to be how things had always been, how things would always be: and then he writes:

Now all is changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born. (1)

I find it interesting that the poet juxtaposes “terror” and “beauty”: I think we tend not to do that. The reasons are obvious: beauty warms one’s heart; beauty lifts one’s spirit; beauty gives one a sense of hope and order. We hear the beautiful music that David pulls out of the organ and that Lauri inspires the choirs to sing; we remember how moved and amazed we were when we understood the care the builders had given to every detail of the organ, both visible and hidden away; and we look at the spectacular beauty of the paraments on the altar and linens used for handling the bread and wine of communion and admire the handiwork of those whose dedicated imagination and craft designed these things and brought them into being, and we are moved to joy and wonder not just because they are pleasing to behold but also because we have a sense of the artist’s disciplined attention to detail and to the painstaking and even painful effort that makes of them what they are.

. . . . So we associate beauty with discipline, with inspiration, with joy, with wonder, with admiration, with appreciation. I think, however, that we do not often associate beauty with terror, as does the poet Yeats. Beauty born of terror: and yet the Psalmist, in Psalm 29, does precisely that. “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,” the Psalmist writes: but the voice of the glorified Lord is, according to the Psalmist, not “sweet music,” but one of power and splendor, a voice that thunders, making oak trees writhe and breaking tall cedar trees, a voice that splits flame and shakes the wilderness: and only after all that offers the blessing of peace. Like the inspiring artistry of the altar guild’s handcraft and of an English organ-builder’s dedicated skill, the beauty of holiness does not come easily. But more important: the beauty of holiness does not simply inspire us; like the splendid terror of the Voice of the Lord, it also demands something of us. And perhaps it is that that makes us most nervous when we see or hear something of great beauty, of exquisite artistry: I think of a poem by the poet Rilke: He has been at the museum and he has seen an ancient torso of the Greek god, Apollo; and he begins to describe the fragment of a statue without arms, without legs, without a head, and therefore without eyes, and then says, nonetheless, there is still so much energy in this perfect fragment that it all bursts out from the torso’s outline like light from a star:

...there is no part of this thing that does not look at you: you must change your life. (2)

So: another thing of great beauty with an Ash Wednesday feel: because, in the spirit of Ash Wednesday the Rilke poem and the ancient statue and Yeats’s poem and the music we hear all call us to take a good hard look at our selves, and to see the difference between what we are and what we might be as God’s creature, and to ask about the things that interfere with our journey as God’s people towards wholeness and towards the mending of God’s world.

Trauma and tragedy do this to us too: How often do we find ourselves driven to the doctor because of some strange buzzing or ache or sharp new pain in some odd place in our body, and immediately find ourselves bargaining: “O please, dear sweet Jesus, let this be nothing, nothing, and never again will I . . .”

Then we learn that the pain is nothing, or nothing serious, or nothing more than our imagination: do we live as though nothing is the same again? But if the doctor gives news that we don’t want to hear; and we know that nothing will be the same again; and our lives will change whether we want or not: is there not resistance nonetheless to that change? The world changed profoundly on September 11: and yet, what has changed for us? Of course, the security lines at the air ports are longer, and we note a military presence there that is more appropriate to some Latin American dictatorship than to our great American democracy. But we still make our business trips, go to our conferences, take the vacations that require us to fly: has this great and terrible thing forced us, really, to think differently about the world, and to reevaluate priorities? On September 11 I called my sister and we agreed that nothing would be the same; but I doubt she would report to you that there has been any ongoing significant change in my communication patterns since then . . .

. . . . The tragic interruption of our lives may be as personal as the death of a child in the dumbest of accidents or a heart-numbing diagnosis by a doctor or the precipitous if not unexpected end of a relationship; it may be as public as a devastating terrorist attack killing thousands and costing billions. Either way there are usually two kinds of response: one is to move increasingly to defend ourselves. That’s the trick of denial, that says, the truth is not true, and I’m going to try to pretend it isn’t so. We might call that the “Enron Escape,” that puts the negative balance into a different account book and burns the book. Or we stock up supplies, buy out cases of medications, invest ourselves more deeply into our work, buy beautiful clothes and cars, so that when the crunch comes, we’re ready; steeled and armored physically, emotionally, and mentally against whatever it is that might attack. I don’t say that this is wrong: a little realism never hurts. But the best of our defenses are never invulnerable against something unexpected: After the First World

War, France built a phenomenal wall of steel and concrete on the German frontier, in order to make invasion from that direction impossible. Foolish expense: at the beginning of the Second World War, the enemy marched through Belgium, coming into France not from the east but from the north: the impenetrable defensive structure was a non-issue.

There is, however, another response: and that response is more closely related to the birth of a terrible beauty. It is terrible beauty because it calls us to be mindful of our vulnerability, of that sense of vulnerability against which we seek to build defenses. But it is a terrible beauty in part because it is so fragile. Consider a piece of Italian Murano hand-blown stained glass: so exquisite and so delicate that a klutz like me doesn’t dare even to breathe in its direction, because I know that if I so much as look at it, it will probably break; which means being translated, perhaps it reminds me so much of my own fragility that I just can’t bear it. Or consider a rose: the flower of love and purity – and fragility. German writer Heinrich Böll tells of a soldier, finally home from the second world war, met by the devastation of his bombed out city, too depressed to do anything but lie around his parents’ apartment, unwilling almost to eat, to say anything of dealing with the rubble outside . . . until the day imagination kicked in, and he went out and scrounged for a few wild flowers growing here and there in the alleys and set up a flower shop: and began to earn a modest living, because in the midst of ruin there was great hunger for shards of beauty. And yet, against the background of destruction, the flower is so fragile; and yet, even against the background of destruction the fragile flower grows.

. . . . Therefore I have hope after September 11: because one of the immediate responses to incredible tragedy is not only the realist’s attack and defense, but also the artist’s creation of poetry and song and painting and sculpture, taking the fragments of devastation and making something new for the sake of memory and hope: “All is changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” It is terrible because of the circumstances of its birth. But it is beauty and it moves us and it tells us something about what we are and tells us something about what we could be and it says to us, like that ancient broken statue of a pagan god, “You must change your life.” You must change your values. You must reorder your priorities.

Such beauty is terrible for another reason: it is not only fragile; one day it, too, will be reduced to nothing but ash and dust and rubble. Do you remember the last scene of the original version of “Planet of the Apes”? Charlton Heston comes around a bend and sees, rising up out of the sand, a fragment of the Statue of Liberty, only the arm with the torch lifted high, and he kneels to the earth and sobs and pounds his fist on the ground and cries, “You did it. You did it.” The point of course is not that someone did something: the point is that something is going to happen to anything humanly created: millions of dollars go into the building of art galleries where light and temperature are controlled to slow the deterioration of paintings and sculptures. To slow the deterioration, not prevent it. We admire the hundreds of plays written by ancient Greek playwrights, and yet wonder about the thousands of texts that have not survived. The beauty that surrounds us in this sanctuary is made of material to last for decades, it is built to last for centuries, longer at least than we will be around. But they will not endure eternally . . .

. . . . Hence the terrible beauty of Ash Wednesday: we are marked with ash, made from palms that just a year ago were lifted high in order to praise the One who comes in blessing and salvation. We do not preserve the palms from year to year, we don’t put them away forever in a basement freezer “palm branch preservation unit.” We intentionally turn them to ash to remind ourselves consciously that all instruments of praise will one day turn to dust and ash, as will we ourselves, despite our defenses, despite the fervour of our praise and hope and longing.

It is almost too much to bear. Were we alone, it would be; all artistry would be a sham, another exercise in denial, except for this: the sign with which we are marked this evening, visibly, in the place and in the way we were marked invisibly in our baptism, is the sign of One who came among us, of One in whom the creator of all earthly things is clearly present as one of the created ones; the One who shaped dust into human flesh, now with us himself as ash and dust and love and longing. As One with us, he invites our trust that we, like he, are always more than dust; that ash is not the end of our existence; that to embrace our existence in the world is to become, like him, born again of a terrible and holy beauty costing (as Eliot said) "not less than everything." (3)

. . . . This evening we have confessed our sins. You will have noticed that we did not receive a word of forgiveness afterwards. That word will come to us on Maundy Thursday, when we end our Lenten fast and begin our journey with Jesus through the three days of suffering and death that leads to resurrection. In the forty days between this day and then we are invited to a Lenten discipline of repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love, trusting that through these we do not simply change our lives, but in changing our lives we share in God’s great work of mending the world. It is a discipline of hope. . . . . Amen.


(1) William Butler Yeats, The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats, revised second edition, edited by Richard J. Finneran (New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry – Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 180.

(2) Rainer Maria Rilke, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," from Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell (New York: The Modern Library – Random House, 1995), p. 67 (my translation).

(3) T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," from Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, Limited, 1963), p. 223.


This sermon is copyright Rev. Dr. Bruce Allen Heggen, Pastor used with permission

Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Delaware

Ash Wednesday Sermon

St. Paul's Lutheran Church

13 February 2002

Pr. Bruce Allen Heggen

Psalm 29