"Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made..."
In the Calvinist spirit of the age, the ceremony of ashing at Ash Wednesday was abolished in 1548, albeit without the consent of Convocation or Parliament.
Yet the first sentence of the Collect for Ash Wednesday shows that the Calvinist spirit did not prevail. God hates nothing that he has made. The religion we inherit from the Book of Common Prayer will not allow that God creates the greater part of humanity only in order to condemn them to damnation, Calvin's notion that he predestines some to heaven and others to hell, or as William Blake would later put it:
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.
Rather, in the words of the Prayer for Humble Access, we know God as 'the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy,' the biblical God to whom we can all, like his people Israel, return in penitence time and time again. And so it is that George Herbert, a priest and far more Anglican poet than Blake, could write his masterpiece on Love:
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
This is the God whom we know in the words of John, but more importantly in the life of Christ, as what He truly is: love. Yes, we are guilty, we are sinful, yes, we are dust and to dust we shall return, but it is not God's will to pulverise us. He is the all-merciful, the ever-loving. Of course, we must be humbly aware of our failings and bring them before Him honestly, and it is in this vein that Herbert's poem continues. As he stands before Love, what it is that he lacks? :
'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'
We know we are not worthy even to look upon the Lord in his radiance. But from that radiance, from the heavenly heights, He descends to us, right into all our dust and sin: He comes down into a stable in Bethlehem, He stands on the banks of the Jordan queuing to be baptised with sinners, He descends even into Hell to hold out his hand to those clawing upwards in the agony of a life separated from God, for this Shepherd will let not even one of his straggling sheep fall away. He descends so that we can indeed see God as Jesus face to face, look at God eye to eye, however enervated by sin our the eyes of our heart:
'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.
Marred and sinful our vision may be, as we look as in a glass darkly, but Herbert knows, God does not send us where we deserve - because He bore the blame. The one who made our eyes to see him and loves us despite all our iniquity, He is the one who died on the Cross, and not to condemn, but to save, and not for the few, but for the sins of the whole world. No matter that we are dust, no matter how badly we are sinners - Love invites us to step forward and taste the fruits of His sacrifice, His Body and Blood given for us, so that though we return to dust, we will thereafter surely receive eternal life.