… now that we’ve reached the second week of Lent, officially, I’m going to propose that we look closely at Ash Wednesday. I read somewhere (out there, on the web) that it’s a difficult poem to understand. I don’t find it so, but perhaps that’s because of my familiarity with the Christian calendar and in particular with the practices of the Church of England, which was Eliot’s faith. (My branch of the Anglican communion is not anywhere near as Catholic as Eliot’s, but the shadow of it is there.)
So. First, some background. It’s a poem by T. S. Eliot, in six movements. The movements mirror the six weeks of Lent, which, for people who may not know, comprises the forty days leading up to Easter. There are six weeks of Wednesdays, starting with Ash Wednesday — the ashes in question that we get smudged on our foreheads are made from the burning of the palms we got the Palm Sunday the year before.
Anyhow. Lent is divided into six weeks, and Eliot’s poem has six movements. Immediately after the six weeks of Lent comes Maundy Thursday, or the day on we believe Jesus’ last Passover was celebrated, the day on which the Last Supper was eaten, the day that ends in the Garden of Gesthemane. Then comes the Friday Christians call “Good”, which is the day we believe Jesus was crucified. Holy Saturday is the day that he was dead, and of course Easter Sunday celebrates the resurrection.
The forty days leading up to this big weekend are days of fasting and meditation, and are meant to parallel the forty days Christ spent in the wilderness being tested before beginning his ministry. During that time Satan appeared to him and the two had dialogues out there in the wilderness, with the devil tempting the Christ with earthly things, like food and riches and power.
So, knowing all this, and knowing that Eliot underwent an Anglo-Catholic conversion (i.e. he went in for the entire Catholic package that comprises High Church C of E), it seems sensible to apply what we know to the Christian ritual of Lent to Ash Wednesday.