As I sit down to write this it is Ash Wednesday. Later this evening I will go to worship where I will have ashes smeared on my forehead in the shape of a cross, accompanied by the words “remember that you are dust and to dust you will return”.
Cheery beginning to the season of Lent is it not?
Then again Lent is not known as a season of fun and frivolity. That is part of why the day before it begins some people celebrate Carnival and others Mardi Gras as a last blowout before the solemn season. Lent is a time of preparation and reflection as we walk with Jesus on the path that leads to a cross on a hill. Lent is traditionally called a “penitential season”, a time to reflect on how we have or have not lived as Christ calls us to live. As we prepare for the New Life and New Hope of Easter Sunday we reflect on who we are and how we might need to change.
We begin with Ash Wednesday, a day to be reminded of our mortality. But what about those ashes? Some see the ashes as a sign of repentance. Some clergy have services where they get people to write confessions down, put them in a bowl, and then burn them as a part of the service. Some have then used those ashes for the marking of the foreheads.
Or maybe the ashes serve to remind us of the words of committal “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. Maybe they remind us that we are not permanent parts of this world. Maybe they give us a sense of perspective on how important we are.
I think both of those things can be true. But I think there is one more thing.
Traditionally the ashes for Ash Wednesday come from the burning of the dried out palm branches of the previous spring. Palm Sunday’s story has within it great hope and potential. “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” Maybe this year the cheering will lead to the coming of God’s Reign in full glory?!?
But it doesn’t. The hopes don’t come to full flower. And then we mark ourselves with the remains of those hopes. Possibly as a reminder to hope? Possibly as a reminder of failure?
The Reign of God is not here in full glory – yet. We are not living as God wants us to – yet. But we are (hopefully) moving in that direction. The cross of ashes: a sign of repentance, a sign of our own eventual death, a sign of dashed hopes; calls us to reaffirm our willingness to allow God to transform our lives.
This Lenten season I invite us all to reflect on how we have or have not lived as people of Love. How have we loved God, our neighbours, our selves? How could we have done it differently or better? When New Life comes again where will we let it take us?
In the end the ashes are not the last word. From ashes can come life. It is happening in the wildfires of Australia as I type. As I ponder the ashes I will wear later tonight I also ponder the ancient myth of the Phoenix. But maybe more about that come Easter, when the ashes give way to new life, new hope, new possibilities.
WE are mortal. We can’t forget that. But we are invited into eternal life too. The ashes wash off the face. Life and hope and love will win in the end. Thanks be to God.