“Ash Wednesday” by Christina Rossetti

At the very beginning of this year’s Lenten season, we’re going to read a short poem by Christina Rossetti (1830–1894), the celebrated English poet and writer of devotional literature. 

Her two-part poem “Ash Wednesday” brings into focus the meaning of this important day in the church calendar. The poem is simple, but it’s not exactly a piece of light reading.

In traditional Western Christianity Ash Wednesday is meant to be a day of repentance and contrition—one of only two yearly days of obligatory fasting and abstinence (the other being Good Friday). So don’t be surprised by the penitential and rather violent language of the poem: scourges, stripes, and smiting are also evocative of the pain Jesus suffered for the sins of all mankind.


My God, my God, have mercy on my sin,
For it is great; and if I should begin
To tell it all, the day would be too small
To tell it in.

My God, Thou wilt have mercy on my sin
For Thy Love’s sake: yea, if I should begin
To tell This all, the day would be too small
To tell it in.


Good Lord, today
I scarce find breath to say:
Scourge, but receive me.
For stripes are hard to bear, but worse
Thy intolerable curse;
So do not leave me.

Good Lord, lean down
In pity, tho’ Thou frown;
Smite, but retrieve me:
For so Thou hold me up to stand
And kiss Thy smiting hand,
It less will grieve me.


Find the words in the poem with the following meaning:

  • beat someone with a whip (v.)
  • to feel intense sorrow (v.)
  • an immoral act; an offence against divine law (n.)
  • a stroke from a whip (n.)
  • compassion and forgiveness (n.)
  • to strike with a firm blow (v.)
  • barely, hardly (adv.)
  • supernatural power to cause harm (n.)

To check your answers, click here.


Christina Rossetti’s Lenten life

The key vocabulary of Lent and Easter

Cover image credit: Pro Church Media via Unsplash

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