On Ash Wednesday Christians around the world begin their journey of Lent, this 40-day time of enhanced intentionality, I’ll call it. We are more intentional about our prayer life, maybe taking on a practice of personal devotions, maybe attending midweek worship services. We are more intentional about serving the neighbour, maybe giving more to the food bank, maybe extending our charity donations. We are more intentional about our eating, maybe symbolically giving up something we love, maybe changing our diet significantly. All these are ways of being more intentional about being in the now, or paying attention to God in our hearts, in our neighbour, and in our environment.
And all this begins with the strange and ancient ritual of the imposition of ashes. Why ashes?
Ashes are one of those elemental things, like water and fire, that have many layers of symbolism. They can be a sign of our connection with the earth, reminding us that we are part of a web that includes all animate and inanimate things. We are stardust! What a gift. Perhaps we might be reminded of our responsibility of care for the earth when we hear the words from Genesis, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19)
Ashes are also signs of penitence, of feeling sorry for our sins. Job had a vision of the almighty and holy God, and he became acutely, painfully aware of his frail mortality and his sinfulness. “I repent in dust and ashes,” he exclaimed (Job 42:6). When Jonah proclaimed God’s disfavor on the city of Nineveh, the king was stricken to the heart with sorrow for his sins. He covered himself in sackcloth and laid himself on a bed of ashes (Jonah 3:6).
But ashes carry still more symbolic weight. Ashes signify grief, sorrow, and lamentation. When Tamar suffered a terrible assault “she put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went.” (II Samuel 13:19) When Jeremiah learned of an invading army coming from the north to pillage and destroy, he cried out, “Our hands fall helpless; anguish has taken hold of us… terror is on every side. O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes. Make bitter lamentation.”
In the Bible, you put ashes on your body when you feel frail, vulnerable to vast and dangerous forces you can’t control, or afraid of harm. You use ashes to signify grief, sorrow, lamentation, and loss. You put ashes on yourself when there just are no more words.
What more fitting gesture could we make in 2021?
The ashes we mark ourselves with this year are for…
the grandchildren we were not able to hug;
the class graduations that never happened;
the friends we were not able to see;
the jobs we lost;
the funerals we were not able to attend;
the parents we couldn’t visit;
and for the thousand other small and everyday things we’ve lost the ability to do over
the past year of pandemic lockdown.
Ashes are signs of our sorrow and grief. But there is still more to what they mean. Ashes are also signs of promise and hope.
On a natural level we know that forests that have been reduced to ash are ripe for an explosion of new growth. In the Bible when God tells Adam that he will one day return to the dust, behind that warning is a promise: God loves every mote and atom of dust that exists. “It is good!” When the king of Nineveh acknowledges his fear and frailty with ashes the harm that was going to come to his nation is averted. In liturgy we know that the season that begins with ashes ends with the fire of Pentecost—a reversal of the natural order of things, but a sign of God’s power to renew and raise to new life. Ashes are a sign of promise and hope.
When we mark ourselves and each other with ashes we are making public and visible our many griefs and sorrows, but we are also casting ourselves on the mercy of our God who has promised to be compassionate and faithful. We know that the God who raised Jesus from the ashes of death can and will also raise us to new life.
Therefore we enter this season of Lent with the sign of ashes, on heads not bowed down in despair, but raised up in confidence and expectation. An end will come. New life will be ours. We journey in the wilderness still, but the land is promised to us.
Thanks be to God, who forgives all our sin, whose mercy endures forever. Amen.