This morning, we find ourselves at Morning Prayer, praying the prayer of Daniel for his people at the beginning of chapter 9 of his book. Well, at least we begin and end the prayer, which sits neatly between a prophesy by Jeremiah that the desolation would be for seventy years, and the visit of the archangel Gabriel who told Daniel of blessings to come.
The reason for it being chosen for today, is probably partially because before Daniel prays we hear of how he presents himself for prayer; what is his posture and inclination. This, as much as his words bring meaning to the prayer of the heart, as they are spoken from a face turned to God, and from a body fine-tuned through fasting and sat in sackcloth and ashes.
The urge to physically prostrate oneself, and take on the traditional signs of remorse, are rare to see in our day. We prefer the signs of hope: the rainbow, the candle, the coloured banner, the joyful note of music. On this one day though, we will in normal times take upon ourselves the mark of ash - and not any ash - the ash of burnt palms; the signs of hosannas crushed and fired to remind us of our mortal weakness.
It is little wonder, when positive encouragement is the order of the day, that we do not take Daniel’s example and make ourselves, inside and out, empty of hope, before praying in supplication and earnest desire to be forgiven and restored. In turning to face God, Daniel knew he could do no more than plead; for the evidence of the people’s failure was felt at every moment.
So, it is a good prayer with which to take up this day, that we call Ash Wednesday, from early, marking in clear direction: preparation, and the power of entering into a liturgy to direct us into a mood and intent, that we would find much more difficult to create with our own extempore prayer.
Ash Wednesday is meant to have set psalms and prayers, as it does, a formal recitation that, oddly enough, brings us to the beginning of Lent as it should. Reciting, repeating, chanting, familiar and heart-felt words from another age and another culture, are a true source of blessing and an expression of openness in lives needing the softening touch to combat rigidity, hardness and dulled eyes; to take from us a heart of stone and give us back a heart of flesh.