EVEN with an early Lent like this, one senses with relief the turning of the year. On that Valentine’s Ash Wednesday, it was the snowdrops and aconites rising bravely out of the cold ground, rather than the hothouse roses wilting on garage forecourts, that lifted my heart.
And now, at last, the earth is breathing other flowers into being, the crocuses are bright beneath the trees in college, and everywhere I sense that warming and stirring, that rustling in the hedgerows and scattering of birdsong through the gardens, as the last of winter lets go its grasp.
Lancelot Andrewes sensed just such a turning of the year, and of the heart, when Lent came in with the spring in 1619. In a beautiful Ash Wednesday sermon, a meditation on turning and returning, which strongly influenced Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday, Andrewes said:
So “it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost” and to her to order there shall be a solemn set return once in the year at least. And reason; for once a year all things turn. And that once is now at this time, for now at this time is the turning of the year. In Heaven, the sun in his equinoctial line, the zodiac and all the constellations in it, do now turn about to the first point. The earth and all her plants, after a dead winter, return to the first and best season of the year. The creatures, the fowls of the air, the swallow and the turtle, and the crane and the stork, “know their seasons,” and make their just return at this time every year. Everything now turning, that we also would make it our time to turn to God in.
Andrewes’s text was taken from Joel (“Turn you unto me with all your heart”), and there is indeed a kind of intimate and heartfelt yearning in his portrayal of God’s longing for our return to him.
The words of this sermon were turning and returning in my mind when I was asked by the Canadian singer Steve Bell to write some lyrics for a song on his album Pilgrimage, a collection that he intended as a journey “from Lent to Love”.
As we wrote the song together, I relished the thought that this was not only a transatlantic collaboration, but, with Andrewes in the mix, it crossed the centuries, too. And now, as the year turns again, the last verses of that song come back to me as I walk the lanes of our parish, contemplating the turn that Lent takes now towards the Passion:
The time of year has come when all things turn.
The sun returns to warm the wintry earth.
The land revives, the plants and seedlings yearn
Towards their rich beginnings and their birth.
And will she turn, oh will she turn again?
I hold my arms out wide upon the tree.
And will she see me yearn to her through pain,
And turn again and turn again to me?
The grapes are swelling on the fruitful vine.
The figs are ripe and low upon the bough.
I break the bread for her and pour the wine,
And all I Am is turned towards her now.